Right to drive? Policy shift grants licenses to immigrants

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by Jonathan Betz / WFAA.com

WFAA

Posted on March 27, 2013 at 7:22 AM

DALLAS — For years, every time Daniela Montiel pulled her car out of the driveway, tension filled her body. During her 30-minute commute to work, she was sure to drive the speed limit and obey all traffic laws — fully aware that one stop by an officer could bring a lot more grief than a simple ticket.

"I don't have no papers," the 21-year-old Mexican national confessed. "I have to drive around so I can feed my family and go to school and be someone in life."

Yet in recent months, immigration changes have radically changed her life. Montiel now has a federal work card and can soon get a Texas driver’s license — even though she is not legally a citizen.

"I'm not going to be rejected everywhere I go," she said joyfully through tears. "I'm going to get treated the same. Equal."

But critics say that is precisely the problem — sweeping changes that let young immigrants avoid deportation have also unlocked new, unintended benefits.

Tea party groups, among others who were already upset at the president’s policy, now question why Texas isn’t resisting it more, like other states. The chief complaint is that young people who were previously considered "illegal" can suddenly now obtain a Texas driver’s license.

"You can pass yourself off as a citizen and gain many, many other things that they would not otherwise be given access to," said Katrina Pierson, a vocal tea party activist based in Garland. "We're giving all of these perks to non-citizen entities in our country."

Last June, the Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to deal with the 1.7 million young immigrants brought to the United States as children by their parents and who have been living here illegally ever since.

The idea was to help so-called "dreamers" like Montiel, who feel they are just as American as anyone else. They grew up attending school in the U.S., and many speak English; but they can run into trouble attending college and getting a job because they are undocumented.

"We come here to work and get a better life," said Montiel, who arrived with her parents from Mexico when she was six years old. "That's what people think we come here to do — something bad. We're just trying to get a better life and education."

Under the program, young immigrants can avoid deportation for two years. But it's created a complicated class of immigrants.

They are no longer "illegal," but they are not fully legal, either. Since they are issued federal work permits, Texas considers them to have a "lawful presence" &mash; a key requirement that then let the immigrants obtain driver’s licenses.

"I think the whole system is messed up," Pierson said. "I don't think they should be given such a gift. Unfortunately, we have a lot of people who have violated the law. So instead of enforcing the laws currently on the books, they’re just going to continue to create new laws."

Arizona refused to issue driver’s licenses to deferred-action migrants and is now facing lawsuits. North Carolina considered and then dismissed branding their licenses with pink stripes.

But if the federal government grants immigrants the right to work, activists argue, why not let them drive there?

"It's always, 'They’re illegal. They should not get any benefits.' They should be second-class citizens? I don’t think so," said Hispanic activist Carlos Quintanilla. "I don't think that's what America is about!"

Gov. Rick Perry has called the president's plan a "slap in the face," but he has not tried to stop the issuance of driver's licenses.

Josh Havens, the governor's spokesman, says Perry "disagrees with the way that the Obama Administration has single-handedly bypassed the democratic process and turned a blind eye to millions of people who were illegally living in the U.S."

Havens added that the governor has been sure to point out that the president's policy "does not grant legal status, and it does not change state law."

The Texas licenses granted to the young immigrants are labeled "limited term," and expire at the same time as the work cards — generally in two years.

The fact that the licenses even appear slightly different has been a source of controversy. The Texas Department of Public Safety refused to release a sample "limited term" license to KENS 5's sister station in Dallas, citing security concerns. The agency also says it doesn't track how many such permits it issues.

Montiel expects to be among the first "dreamers" in Dallas to get a license. Before she got her deferral, she said she was cleaning a grocery store for $200 a week. Now, possibilities fill her with excitement and her voice with emotion.

She has already secured a new job managing an apartment complex.

"I can escalate and be someone in life and support my family," Montiel said, choking back tears. "Just to have the ID means a lot... my whole life changed."

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