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On driver’s licenses, a test for McCrory

Deferred action immigrants “lawfully present,” A.G. says

As governor of a state that’s neither decidedly red nor blue, Pat McCrory is going to spend much of the next four years being tugged at by starkly disparate perspectives on issues. The first such test of his administration has already presented itself: Should North Carolina issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants who are participants in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program?

That program, which started last year under the Obama administration, allows the children of illegal immigrants to live in the United States while deportation is postponed for two years, subject to renewal. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, people who qualify for deferred action are considered “lawfully present” and are allowed to work and go to school.

Does that also mean they should qualify for driver’s licenses? A handful of states, including North Carolina, are grappling with the issue. Initially last year, the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles said it would allow these immigrants driving privileges, but after issuing some driver’s licenses, the DMV changed its mind and decided to ask N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper for his opinion on the matter. Cooper’s answer came last week – if immigrants are lawfully present in the U.S., they should be issued driver’s licenses once they prove they have been granted federal deferred status.

DMV commissioner Eric Boyette said officials were reviewing the response. N.C. transportation secretary Tony Tata has not said whether he will comply with the ruling. You can be sure each is looking to McCrory for guidance.

The governor, meanwhile, has voices in each ear telling him dramatically different things. On one side are those who think issuing the driver’s licenses is legal and sensible. (Cooper, a Democrat, stressed in his opinion that doing so not only was legal, but required.) Immigration advocates say that it’s also humane, that immigrants’ job prospects would suffer if they were denied a way to get to and from work.

But in McCrory’s other ear are those who believe Obama’s deferred action program is unlawful. That includes Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican who said last week that the state should “push back when the Feds encroach on our ability to protect our citizens and enforce our laws.”

But while Forest and others would surely love to turn this issue into an immigration policy dispute, it’s not. It’s a legal issue, and the opinion that deferred action immigrants are lawfully in the U.S. is not just Cooper’s, but the Department of Homeland Security’s. Just to be sure, Homeland Security released a clarification last week reiterating that stance. Iowa has since decided to issue driver’s licenses to deferred action immigrants, and Michigan and Arizona are reconsidering their decisions not to.

That leaves only Nebraska among all other states as a firm no, and it leaves McCrory with a choice. He can take the sensible route, acknowledge that no one has declared deferred action status unlawful, and order the DMV to issue the driver’s licenses. Or he can side with the unreasonable voices who don’t want to give an inch on illegal immigration. The decision McCrory makes will offer a clue about what kind of North Carolina we’ll all live in for the next four years.

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