Immigrant driver's license saga continues

Todd Dorman
Published: January 21 2013 | 2:29 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:21 am in
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I've had a couple of readers ask me lately if I'm going to write about the Iowa DOT's decision to deny driver's licenses to young immigrants who the Obama administration is allowing to stay in the country.

I haven't, mainly because I expect this to get fixed, whether I whine about it or not.

In June the president deferred prosecution of illegal immigrants under age 30 who arrived here as children and meet a list of other conditions, granting them a legal OK to remain in the country for at least two years. In December, Iowa DOT Director Paul Trombino declared that those immigrants can't get an Iowa driver's license, which are issued only to those who are in the country legally. The DOT contends that the president's deferral order isn't the same as legal authorization, under the letter of state law.

The governor's legal counsel, Brenna Findley, says prosecutorial discretion isn't the same as legal status, so no licenses. Findley's former boss, U.S. Rep. Steve King, has threatened to sue Obama over the deferrals, but I haven't seen a petition filed.

I think the Branstad administration/DOT could have come to a different, less narrow, legal conclusion, but nobody's asked me for a ruling. They never do. I've heard folks say this is a political decision. But I don't see the upside.

The practical effect of all this legal hair-splitting is that there are an estimated 5,000 young people in Iowa who are now legally authorized to stay here, go to school, hold a job, etc., but can't get a state driver's license. It's a prohibition that benefits absolutely no one but could do considerable harm. Even if you're opposed to Obama's action, it seems pretty clear that putting these immigrants' jobs in jeopardy, or pushing them to drive without a license or insurance, is not a good outcome.

State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have, smartly, raised objections, which raises the possibility of some sort of legislative remedy to the DOT's ruling. Soon, hopefully.

The ACLU of Iowa has now weighed in, pointing to new guidance from the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security clarifying that immigrants eligible for deferrals are authorized by the DHS to be "lawfully present" for two years. But lawfully present is still not "lawful status."

So I doubt the Branstad administration or DOT will change its interpretation of existing law, but I bet the governor would sign a legislative fix. And I still expect this to be remedied when the dust settles. Call me an optimist or a fool.

If not, there will be plenty to write about.

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