WASHINGTON -- Civil rights groups sued Michigan Secretary Of State Ruth Johnson (R) on Wednesday for blocking driver's licenses for undocumented young people given deportation relief by the president. Denying the group licenses makes many unable to use their newly-granted work authorization, attend school or simply get around.
The American Civil Liberties Union and National Immigration Law Center filed the Michigan suit on behalf of three undocumented young people and a youth immigrant group, One Michigan.
Receiving driver's licenses is a significant issue to the estimated 1.76 million young undocumented immigrants -- often called Dreamers -- in Michigan who may be eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Although there are no breakdowns for how many young people in Michigan have been granted deferred action, 102,965 people were approved nationwide as of Dec. 13.
The two-year deferred action means that in most states, those undocumented immigrants can apply for driver's licenses.
But Michigan, Arizona and Nebraska governments have refused to grant licenses to Dreamers who have been granted deportation reprieve.
"They're really unable to work and to use benefits of that status because they can't drive," said Karen Tumlin, an attorney for the National Immigration Law Center. "Michigan winter is not exactly where you'd want to walk to work."
In Arizona, the decision seemed partially political. Gov. Jan Brewer (R), an immigration hardliner, announced in August that the state would deny driver's licenses to deferred action recipients. The civil rights groups filed a complaint in Arizona in November along the same grounds as the suit in Michigan.
Attorneys with the ACLU and the National Immigration Law Center said Michigan seems somewhat different -- possibly just confused, rather than trying to thwart the policy for political reasons. Johnson, the secretary of state, told her staffers in November not to grant driver's licenses to deferred action beneficiaries. Her spokeswoman, Gisgie Gendreau, told the Detroit Free Press at the time that they were not allowed, by law, to grant licenses.
"Michigan law requires legal presence, that someone be here legally," Gendreau told the Free Press. "The federal government has said that DACA does not grant legal status, so we can't issue a driver's license or state ID to DACA participants."
Reached for comment on the lawsuit Wednesday afternoon, Gendreau said the state will continue to rely on the government's definition of legal status for its policy on driver's licenses. She pointed to a few documents that state deferred action does not confer an individual with legal status, including the June 15 memo by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that announced the policy. "This memorandum confers no substantive right, immigration status or pathway to citizenship," that memo reads.
The attorneys said they are hopeful that their lawsuit will convince state leaders that they are misunderstanding the policy. Although deferred action isn't the same as an immigrant visa, it does allow the undocumented beneficiary to stay in the United States legally, which they argue means the Michigan secretary of state is wrong.
"It's contradicted by federal law," Michael Tan, an attorney at the ACLU, said. "Although states have the authority to issue driver's licenses as a general matter, they don't get to decide who is authorized to be here in the country or not, that's up to the federal government."
Tan said given Michigan's general openness toward immigrants, its leaders may be more amenable to changing its policy than those in states like Arizona.
"I don't think that this is like Arizona, where Gov. Brewer very openly came out and denounced the DACA program as back-door amnesty and described her order as being necessary to make sure 'illegal people' wouldn't get licenses in her state," he said. "I think Michigan is different, the governor's office has worked and made a real commitment to make Michigan a welcoming place for immigrants. This is really about a fundamental misunderstanding of federal law."
This article has been updated to include a response from the Michigan secretary of state's office and to clarify that Michael Tan intended to say states have the authority to issue driver's licenses as a general, rather than federal, matter.