(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court ruled on Monday that Arizona cannot deny driving licenses to some immigrants who came to the United States without permission as children.
The verdict by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court ruling in a challenge to an Arizona policy covering those who benefited from a federal program that let certain immigrants stay in the country.
Recipients of the program, known as "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" or DACA, were prohibited in Arizona from using employment documents to prove they were in the United States legally and obtain driving licenses.
The three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit said in its ruling that "it could identify no legitimate state interest that was rationally related to defendants' decision to treat DACA recipients disparately from other noncitizens."
After the DACA program took effect in August 2012 it was described by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer as an "Obama amnesty plan." In an executive order, her office directed state agencies to prevent recipients from becoming eligible for any state identification, including driving licenses.
The challenge to the Arizona policy was brought by an immigrant rights group and five DACA beneficiaries living in the state who were denied licenses.
The 9th Circuit noted that more than 87 percent of Arizonans commute to work by car.
"The link between driver's licenses and the ability to work is heightened by the fact that some jobs - including jobs for which two plaintiffs wished to apply - require driver's licenses as a condition of hire," the court said.
It said the state's policy appeared intended in part to express animus toward the recipients of the program, "in part because of the federal government's policy toward them."
"Such animus, however, is not a legitimate state interest."
To be eligible for DACA, immigrants must have come to the United States before the age of 16 and have been under 31 as of June 15, 2012.
Among other requirements, recipients must be enrolled in school, or have graduated from high school or obtained a GED, and have no serious criminal offenses on their record.
(Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Doina Chiacu)