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Originally published: 2013-02-18 09:54:45
Last modified: 2013-02-18 09:54:45

N.C. to issue driver licenses to certain immigrants

by Adam Orr

Reversing a decision made last September, the N.C. Department of Transportation will soon begin issuing driver’s licenses and identification cards to qualified applicants under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, according to information released Feb. 14.

"We've found a way to make this right by developing a process that will allow qualified deferred action for childhood arrival applicants to obtain driver licenses, while protecting the rights of all United States citizens," according to N.C. DOT Secretary Tony Tata, who said the agency made the determination to begin issuing licenses after, “weeks of review, study and consultation.”

The N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles will begin issuing licenses to qualified DACA applicants on March 25, at the conclusion of necessary employee training and changes to computer programs, according to Tata.

"From our perspective, (issuing drivers licenses) is a good thing," said Ashe County Sheriff James Williams in a Feb. 15 interview. "The majority of these folks are solid citizens, and they cause no problems. If we stopped them though, we'd have to charge them with no operator's license and then it would have to be handled through the courts. So this takes care of that."

Calls to Watauga County officials were not immediately returned.

During the past three years, the Obama administration has undertaken an, “unprecedented effort to transform the immigration enforcement system,” into an agency focused on public safety and border security, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

While the agency said it, “continues to focus its enforcement on the removal of all individuals who pose a danger to national security or a public safety,” the agency will also, “exercise prosecutorial discretion as appropriate to ensure that enforcement resources on low priority cases, such as individuals who came to the United States as children and meet other key guidelines.”

The new directive from Tata overturns an earlier decision by former NCDMV Commissioner Michael D. Robertson in September 2012 that prevented NC DMV personnel from issuing driver’s licenses to DACA applicants.

According to an internal DMV memo dated Sept. 10, 2012, NCDMV Commissioner Michael D. Robertson requested a written opinion from North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, “so that DMV can properly comply with North Carolina law, … For the time being, we have directed DMV offices not to issue driver’s license of limited duration.”

A later memo, dated Sept. 14, 2012, clarified that the NC DMV was "seeking an interpretation of 'deferred action,' from DHS," and told NC DMV personnel not to issue a driver's license or an ID card to anyone claiming, 'deferred action.’”

After reviewing the opinion issued by N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper in January and seeking guidance from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, which authorizes, "those granted deferred action to be present in the U.S. and to be considered lawfully present during their deferred action period,” Tata said the agency made the determination.

"We also appreciate the assistance of our state's sheriffs, the Department of Public Safety, our legal, communications and DMV staff, and the many advocacy groups who informed our decision making process," said Tata.

The new North Carolina driver licenses and ID cards will be issued for the same duration as that provided by the federal government, usually not more than two years, and licenses will clearly note the limited license duration.

The state already typically issues limited duration licenses for visiting students, agricultural workers and others.

Tata said the NCDMV will also reinstate the driving privileges to 13 individuals whose erroneously issued licenses were suspended until Cooper’s office released his opinion on the DACA license process.

The DACA program grants work permits to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. To qualify, a person must meet specific criteria outlined by the United State’s Department of Homeland Security.

As many as 1.76 million unauthorized immigrants could be potentially eligible to apply for DACA status, according to statistics released Aug. 3, 2012, by the Migration Policy Institute.

The process includes three forms, supporting documentation including proof of identity, proof you came to the United States before your 16th birthday, proof of immigration status, proof you have continuously resided in the US since June 15, 2007 and proof of your student status at time of request. The application fee is $465, including a processing and biometrics fee.