Driver's licenses and other state benefits are at the heart of a new battle in the national immigration debate. President Barack Obama's new immigration program will mean some undocumented immigrants will be granted driver's licenses -- and some will not, depending on where they live. It's the first sign that states will differ dramatically in their implementation of the President's program.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer fired the opening salvo last week, on the same day that federal authorities began accepting applications for a program aimed at helping tens of thousands of young immigrants who entered the country illegally as children.
Brewer ordered officials in her state not to provide driver's licenses or any other benefits to immigrants granted "deferred status" under the new federal program, which allows accepted applicants to remain in the United States and work without fear of deportation for at least two years
A lot of these issues are in uncharted waters. In this particular area, which is how do you treat people that are deferred action, there's very little legal precedent to go by," said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at the New York University School of Law. "States are making their own judgments."
That means the actual benefits recipients see could depend on where they live.
Governors in Nebraska and Texas have already followed Brewer's lead.
"The state of Nebraska will continue its practice of not issuing driver's licenses, welfare benefits or other public benefits to illegal immigrants unless specifically authorized by Nebraska statute," Gov. Dave Heineman said Friday.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has said that the federal immigration "directive does not undermine or change our state laws," writing in a letter to the state's attorney general that the federal guidelines "confer absolutely no legal status whatsoever" on any immigrant who qualifies.
But California is moving toward granting licenses to the influx of undocumented immigrants expected to take advantage of the federal policy, as is Oregon.
"We're still trying to sort out what this new limbo category means for states," said Ann Morse, program director of the Immigrant Policy Project at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Under the new policy, people younger than 30 who arrived in the United States before the age of 16, pose no criminal or security threat, and were successful students or served in the military, can get a two-year deferral from deportation and apply for work permits.
A memo outlining the Obama administration's policy states that the program does not grant legal status. But it does provide for a work permit and, presumably, the benefits that come with it.