PHOENIX (AP) — Reyna Montoya is one of nearly 19,000 young immigrants in Arizona who have been allowed to stay in the U.S. under the Obama administration's deferred action policy, but the benefits of the program in the state have been limited.
As Montoya applies for teaching jobs, she considers herself competitively disadvantaged because Arizona hasn't allowed her to get a driver's license as the federal policy allows.
She was among those cheering a decision by a federal appeals court that on Monday ruled the state cannot deny driver's licenses to immigrants in the program. The three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals suggested the policy was intended to express hostility toward the young immigrants, in part because of the deferred action policy.
"We are celebrating now, but we are going to have to continue to organize," Montoya said, noting that it's not the only example of difficulties she and others face.
Montoya said her counterparts in Arizona often struggle to pay for college, because the state requires those receiving deferred action assistance to pay out-of-state tuition, which is more expensive.
The program was created by the Obama administration in 2012 to help immigrants younger than 30 who came to the U.S. illegally as children. Applicants must have been in the country for at least five continuous years, enrolled in or have graduated from a high school or GED program or have served in the military. Aside from allowing driver's licenses, the program also permits young immigrants to pursue a two-year renewable work permit.
States have imposed various restrictions on benefits such immigrants are able to obtain, and Arizona's denial of licenses was one of the most visible challenges to the Obama administration's deferred deportation policy. A separate court battle is playing out in Arizona over a community college system that wants to grant in-state tuition to the immigrants — an effort the state attorney general has challenged.
Arizona was one of two states that refused to issue licenses to the immigrants, sparking the latest court fight over the issue.
Republican Gov. Jan Brewer called the ruling misguided and said she was considering appeal.
The appeals court ruling follows other high-profile battles between Arizona and the federal government over immigration, including court decisions that struck down much of a 2010 enforcement law but upheld its most hotly debated section, which requires police to check immigration status under certain circumstances.
"We hope that this ruling signals the end of what has been an unfortunate anti-immigrant period in Arizona," said Karen Tumlin, one of the attorneys representing the immigrants.
The decision should remove any barriers young immigrants face in getting a driver's license in Arizona, Tumlin said.
The ruling comes during a national focus on the topic as tens of thousands of immigrants from Central America — many unaccompanied children — have illegally entered the country in recent months, straining the capacity of detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Brewer issued an executive order in August 2012 directing state agencies to deny driver's licenses and other public benefits to young immigrants who get work authorization under the deferred action program.
Brewer pointed out that the judges who ruled against her were appointed by Democratic presidents. The governor blames Obama's policy for the recent influx of immigrants entering the country illegally and notes that the program isn't federal law. "Lawless decrees by the president demonstrate animus to Congress, states and the Constitution," Brewer said.
The appeals panel ordered a lower court judge to issue a preliminary injunction blocking Brewer's executive order while the case is litigated. It's unknown how long it will take for the case to conclude.
Brewer's attorneys said the decision to deny driver's licenses grew out of liability concerns and the desire to reduce the risk of the licenses being used to improperly access public benefits.
Associated Press writer Paul Davenport contributed to this report.