Supreme Court Rules Arizona Must Issue Driver's Licenses to Immigrants
By Kevin Baxter
For now, Carla Chavarria plans to keep taking the bus. And Julio Zuniga will remain cautious every time he drives past a police car.
Although the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Arizona must offer driver's licenses to young immigrants who entered the country illegally as children, that doesn't mean the fight over the issue has been won.
"Right now, people are very confused," said Chavarria, one of five plaintiffs who sued in federal court to stop Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's efforts to keep her and others like her from applying for licenses. "They're just kind of waiting to see what's next. They're just waiting to hear, 'Yes, now we can go get our license.' "
The confusion began two years ago when President Obama took action to defer deportation of immigrants who were brought into the country as children. In most states, these so-called Dreamers were eligible for licenses and work permits.
But Nebraska and Arizona refused to authorize the issuance of driver's licenses. Chavarria and four others with the Arizona Dream Act Coalition challenged that in court, and in July the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with them.
Brewer appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, which voted 6 to 3 on Wednesday to turn down the appeal.
But the mood at the Arizona Dream Act Coalition offices Wednesday was far more subdued than celebratory. And less than three dozen supporters showed up at an afternoon rally the group organized at the state Capitol in Phoenix, with many waiting to see what the governor would do next.
So as Chavarria, 21, a student at Scottsdale Community College, quietly took requests for interviews and calls of congratulations on her cellphone, other staff volunteers worked on unrelated projects.
"This is a big victory. But there's still a 10% chance, a small chance, that Gov. Brewer is going to come out and ask for another hold," said Chavarria, who was brought across the border from Mexico when she was 6. "We're still kind of waiting on that. But this is another key win for us."
Sitting nearby, Erika Andiola was just as cautious, pointing to past victories on immigration issues that turned out to be largely Pyrrhic.
"This has been such a long process. This has happened so often," she said. "Until we actually have implementation, I think folks are going to be" wary.
Implementation could take place soon, however. The Supreme Court's decision moves the issue into the Phoenix courtroom of U.S. District Judge David Campbell, who can hand down an order in the next few days that would require the Arizona Department of Transportation to begin issuing licenses to Dreamers.
Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder said the governor was awaiting Campbell's decision.
"Like all parties to this case, we'll continue to watch the courts for the next step," he said.
Others considered the issue decided.
"This order is a big holiday gift to the Dreamers and a lump of coal for Gov. Brewer," said Jennifer Chang Newell, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. "It's time for Arizona leaders to put this unwise, discriminatory policy behind them."
Karen Tumlin, managing attorney with the National Immigrant Law Center, agreed.
"Justice in this case took more than two years to finally be delivered. But we're no less pleased with the outcome."
For Zuniga, 25, whose brother was jailed and then deported five years ago after being stopped while driving without a license, the sooner the licensing law goes into the effect the sooner he'll be able to stop thinking about a routine traffic stop as a potently life-changing event.
"It's a celebration. It's happiness," Zuniga, whose parents brought him to the U.S. when he was 6, said of the Supreme Court decision. "I'm thinking of the times I had to struggle without a license. It's always a scary thing. Whenever I see a police car I try not to give them any reason to pull me over. "
For Chavarria, a driver's license would be a relief and a time-saver.
"Public transportation -- that's what I use to travel -- it takes a really long time here in Arizona. It takes me two hours sometimes to go to places that I need to be," she said. A license "will give me time to spend with family. To spend more time at work or school."
"I'm happy. But at the same time we need to know when we can go apply for a license, when we can drive in peace. There's no process yet. This is something very positive. But we still haven't won the battle."
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