Hundreds of young illegal immigrants across North Carolina took advantage of their first chance Monday to apply for the privilege to drive a car.
The state Division of Motor Vehicles began issuing drivers licenses to immigrants enrolled in a federal program that defers deportation for teens and young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children or stayed illegally after their visas expired.
More than 16,500 immigrants in North Carolina have received or applied for two-year work permits from the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Monday was the first day DMV accepted these work permits as proof required for noncitizens of legal presence in the state.
In Charlotte, Viri Jerquin, a 16-year-old immigrant from Mexico, brought her mother with her to get her permit on Monday at the North Tryon Street DMV.
Its going to be the same because you can still drive without a license, she said. But now youll have the right to drive legally.
At the Brookshire Boulevard DMV office, Jose Hernandez, 21, said that for many illegal immigrants, it will mean the end of looking over their shoulder in fear.
It hurts me seeing another Hispanic detained by police just because they dont have their papers, said Hernandez, who is a U.S. citizen, while waiting to get his license renewed. This will give them more ease of mind.
Across the state, DMV said it issued licenses or learners permits Monday to 314 immigrants with deferred-action work permits.
In some households, these young people will find themselves with new freedoms and legal protections their parents do not enjoy.
The fact is, Ill be able to drive my parents around, without having to worry about being pulled over by the cops and getting deported, said Ulises Perez, 18, a junior at Carrboro High School.
North Carolina officials pondered legal status and legalisms for months before they decided that state and federal law gave participants in the deferred-action program the right to apply for drivers licenses.
DMV stopped issuing the licenses last fall pending a state attorney generals opinion, which finally was issued in January. Transportation Secretary Tony Tata spent a few more weeks weighing the issues before he announced in February that DMV would resume issuing the licenses this week.
The immigrant licenses initially were designed with a bright pink stripe, sparking a backlash. Critics likened it to a scarlet letter that would target immigrant drivers for prejudicial treatment.
Last week, without acknowledging the criticism, DMV issued a new, pink-free design for the two-year immigrant license. It uses the standard DMV motif plus red-print qualifiers to confirm the drivers LEGAL PRESENCE in the state but NO LAWFUL STATUS. That means there is no change in the status as an illegal immigrant.
Some critics were unhappy about the lettering, but they were still glad for the chance to get their licenses.
The no lawful status is kind of racist, thats how I feel, said Ivan Benavides, 19, of Raleigh, who said he will apply for his license as soon as he gets car insurance as required by DMV. But as long as I can drive places, its good. I dont care if it says no lawful status. I dont care about the color. I want to just, like, drive.
Adrian Razo, 18, a native of Mexico who has lived in Siler City as long as I can remember said the legal privilege to drive will make it easier for him to get to his new job at a radio station, and to start making plans to attend college and have a career.
Hes glad the pink stripe is gone, and hes satisfied with the legal language on the license.
I think its correct, Razo said. The new license makes it clear we have legal presence but no lawful status. But if I have to show my ID to someone, Im going to have a little bit of trouble explaining why my license says what it says.
Perez plans to get his license this week. He embraces the new ID, with its contradictory political messages, as part of his American identity.
Its like showing that youre here, and youre not afraid, Perez said. Its saying that there are undocumented people here, and youre not afraid to show it. Youre not afraid to tell people who you are. Observer staff writer Elisabeth Arriero and Anne Blythe of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.
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