Some illegal immigrants will receive licenses
The N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles will begin issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants who qualify for federal work papers, starting March 25.
Thursday's announcement by DMV Commissioner Tony Tata comes less than a month after the state attorney general's office said the agency was legally required to issue licenses to those qualified under the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began accepting applications in August from immigrants brought to the United States without authorization as minors, granting those who qualify for work papers with an opportunity for renewal after two years.
Flanked by uniformed state troopers and county sheriffs, Tata said the licenses for each immigrant would be set to expire on the same date as the federal permit granting legal status in the state.
"We remain keenly aware that the driver's license is the key to many doors in our society," Tata said. "So as we approve driver's licenses for those approved by (the federal government), we need to do so carefully."
Tata said the five week delay in implementation would give enough time to train state license examiners and educate the public, both in English and in Spanish, about the policy change.
Immigrant advocacy groups and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union praised the decision by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's administration as a victory for rule of law.
"We are extremely pleased that officials did the right thing and will give young immigrants throughout North Carolina an opportunity to drive safely and legally," said Raul Pinto, a staff attorney for ACLU-NC. "This decision makes it easier for thousands of young people with work permits to drive to work, attend school, take care of their families and contribute to communities across our state."
The initial decision to deny licenses to those under DACA was quietly made by then-state DMV Commissioner Mike Robertson, who wrote to Attorney General Roy Cooper in September asking for legal advice about what to do. Cooper's office didn't respond until Jan. 17, after the issue gained public attention through media reports.
Republican lawmakers have been critical of the DACA program, which was put into place by the Obama administration after the Democratic president said Congress was unwilling to act on comprehensive immigration reform.
Obama is a supporter of the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for qualified young immigrants brought to the United States when they were children.
Like many GOP politicians, McCrory took a hard line on illegal immigration during his gubernatorial campaigns. The governor, who took office last month, was not at Thursday's media conference.
Public Safety Secretary Kieran Shanahan conceded some conservatives who voted for McCrory might be upset by Thursday's decision, but he said the law is clear on the issue.
"I think most people would say the rule of law is the most important thing we have in this county," said Shanahan, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor. "I'm proud to be part of an administration working tirelessly to support the law."