Activists, lawmakers mobilizing on Iowa driver's licenses for immigrants (updated)

Advocacy groups and some Iowa lawmakers are challenging the Iowa Department of Transportation’s policy against issuing driver’s licenses or other identification cards to those granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Nearly 5,000 young undocumented immigrants in Iowa have received temporary protection from deportation under an Obama administration policy announced last summer. People with “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” status are under age 30, have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, were brought to this country illegally as children under age 16, “have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or served in the military.” The idea is to allow those immigrants to live and work or go to school without fear of deportation for at least two years. People with deferred status are not eligible for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program but may have a Social Security number if they have permission to work in this country.

At least 17 states are issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants with deferred status, and many advocates for immigrants’ rights do not agree with the Iowa DOT’s interpretation of state law. Two Iowa House Republicans also faulted the policy at a hearing of the legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee earlier this month.

State Reps. Guy Vander Linden, R-Oskaloosa, and Dave Heaton, R-Mt. Pleasant, each questioned [Iowa Department of Transportation Director Paul] Trombino and disputed the department’s logic.

“Because they have been deferred, then these people are temporarily authorized to be here,” Heaton said. “And that being the case, I believe that these people should be open to receiving a driver’s license here in the state.”

Vander Linden, who initiated the committee’s discussion of the issue on Wednesday, said he believed the DOT should’ve enacted its policy through a formal rulemaking process and said denying immigrants the opportunity to drive prevented them from attending work or school and undermined public safety over all.

“I sure don’t understand how that supports the DOT goal of improving safety across all transportation systems,” Vander Linden said of the license policy. “To me, this is the Department of Transportation getting into immigration policy, and I just don’t understand it.”

Iowa’s formal rulemaking process involves several levels of review and a public comment period.

Governor Terry Branstad’s legal counsel Brenna Findley argues that deferred status for immigrants is an “exercise in prosecutorial discretion” rather than legal permission to live and work in this country. The Branstad administration is unlikely to reconsider this policy without changes to state law.

At least two Iowa Democrats will sponsor bills to address this problem. State Senator Steve Sodders told me this week that he will introduce a bill in the upper chamber, while State Representative Mark Smith will introduce the same bill in the Iowa House. Sodders and Smith represent the Marshalltown area, which has a large population of Latino immigrants. Latino voters likely helped re-elect both legislators in 2012.

The legislation is still in the drafting process, and Sodders was not sure where it will be considered. Leaders in each legislative chamber have the power to assign bills to committees. A bill on driver’s licenses for immigrants with deferred status might be sent to committees on Judiciary, Transportation, or State Government. Sodders serves on both the Judiciary and State Government committees and is part of the Senate leadership team as president pro-tem. Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Rob Hogg isn’t going to lead the charge on this issue but sounds open to changing state policy on driver’s licenses.

Vander Linden chairs the Iowa House State Government Committee, while Heaton serves on the Iowa House Judiciary Committee, as does Democrat Mark Smith. Neither Vander Linden nor Heaton nor Smith serves on the House Transportation Committee. Where House Speaker Kraig Paulsen assigns the bill on driver’s licenses for immigrants may indicate whether House Republican leaders lean toward the Branstad administration policy or toward Vander Linden’s viewpoint.

Sodders said he expects some insurance companies to support his bill, in addition to Catholic groups and others advocating for immigrants’ interests. Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference confirmed to me that his organization will be working to change state policy on driver’s licenses. The Catholic group has long advocated for human rights and social justice for documented and undocumented immigrants. While this year’s legislative priorities do not specifically mention driver’s licenses, Chapman said that’s only because the document was drafted before the Iowa DOT announced its policy in late December. Chapman emphasized that the although Iowa Catholic Conference will support efforts to change state law in this area, the organization believes current state law allows for the DOT to issue driver’s licenses to people granted DACA status.

Activists who oppose the Branstad administration’s policy will rally this Monday, January 21, at noon outside the Iowa DOT’s driver’s license office in Des Moines. The office will be closed because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, but the location on Euclid (a busy artery) has good visibility, and many young people should be able to attend, since Des Moines public schools will not be in session. The American Friends Service Committee’s Immigrants Voice Program is organizing the rally and will hold a press conference.

The group Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown will hold a community meeting at the Marshalltown Public Library on January 21 at 6:00 pm. The meeting is for people to find out what’s being done to change the DOT’s decision on driver’s licenses and how they can get involved.

At this writing, more than 600 Iowans have signed an online petition urging Iowa DOT Director Paul Trombino to “reverse your political decision to deny driver’s licenses to those who have been granted work permits under President Obama’s new immigration program.”

Please share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: According to a media release from the American Friends Service Committee, events supporting driver’s licenses for “Iowa DREAMers” are being planned for January 21 in Waterloo and Iowa City. I will update this post again with more details.

SECOND UPDATE: On January 18, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services updated its frequently asked questions document regarding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, making clear that people with this status are “lawfully present” in the United States. Excerpts:

New – Q1: What is deferred action?

A1: Deferred action is a discretionary determination to defer removal action of an individual as an act of prosecutorial discretion. For purposes of future inadmissibility based upon unlawful presence, an individual whose case has been deferred is not considered to be unlawfully present during the period in which deferred action is in effect. An individual who has received deferred action is authorized by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be present in the United States, and is therefore considered by DHS to be lawfully present during the period deferred action is in effect. However, deferred action does not confer lawful status upon an individual, nor does it excuse any previous or subsequent periods of unlawful presence. […]

New – Q6: If my case is deferred, am I in lawful status for the period of deferral?

A6: No. Although action on your case has been deferred and you do not accrue unlawful presence (for admissibility purposes) during the period of deferred action, deferred action does not confer any lawful status.

The fact that you are not accruing unlawful presence does not change whether you are in lawful status while you remain in the United States. However, although deferred action does not confer a lawful immigration status, your period of stay is authorized by the Department of Homeland Security while your deferred action is in effect and, for admissibility purposes, you are considered to be lawfully present in the United States during that time.

Apart from the immigration laws, “lawful presence”, “lawful status” and similar terms are used in various other federal and state laws. For information on how those laws affect individuals who receive a favorable exercise of prosecutorial discretion under DACA, please contact the appropriate federal, state or local authorities.

New – Q7: Is there any difference between “deferred action” and “deferred action for childhood arrivals” under this process?

A7: Deferred action for childhood arrivals is one form of deferred action. The relief an individual receives pursuant to the deferred action for childhood arrivals process is identical for immigration purposes to the relief obtained by any person who receives deferred action as an act of prosecutorial discretion.

Q14: Is passage of the DREAM Act still necessary in light of the new process?

A14: Yes.The Secretary of Homeland Security’s June 15th memorandum allowing certain people to request consideration for deferred action is the most recent in a series of steps that DHS has taken to focus its enforcement resources on the removal of individuals who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety. Deferred action does not provide lawful status or a pathway to citizenship. As the President has stated, individuals who would qualify for the DREAM Act deserve certainty about their status. Only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer the certainty that comes with a pathway to permanent lawful status.

THIRD UPDATE: Organizers cancelled the Des Moines rally on January 21 because of dangerously cold weather.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa is calling on Branstad to change his administration’s policy in light of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s January 18 statements.

  • Updated guidelines from the fed

    Yesterday the Dept. of Homeland Security issued updated guidelines saying those with “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” status are “lawfully present” in the country. That undercuts Branstad’s legal position.

    I don’t understand why we are paying for Brenna Findley to give legal opinions (especially when she give bad advice.) That’s why we have an Attorney General. Tom Miller won and Brenna lost.

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