RALEIGH, N.C. — A new North Carolina driver's license set to be issued to some illegal immigrants has a bright pink stripe and the bold words "NO LAWFUL STATUS," raising concerns about whether the design will brand those who show it.
The North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles announced last week that it would begin issuing the licenses March 25 following a lengthy legal review. The Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program grants valid federal work permits to qualified applicants brought to the U.S. as children without legal authorization.
Some Republican lawmakers in the state have balked at the idea, filing a bill Thursday to bar the DMV from granting the licenses until at least June.
Cinthia Marroquin, a 22-year-old Raleigh resident awaiting approval for a DACA permit, said the longer the license issue is delayed, the longer it will take for her to get a job and drive herself to work. Even if she is able to get one, she is worried about presenting a license declaring she has "NO LAWFUL STATUS" at a police roadblock or while writing a check at the grocery store.
"A lot of us are just scared," said Marroquin, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 15. "We just want to be able to get a job and drive to work. Having that license is just going to show everybody you're here illegally, just buying a beer or writing a check. You don't know how people might react."
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina also takes issue with the designation.
"North Carolina should not be making it harder for aspiring citizens to integrate and contribute to our communities by branding them with a second-class driver's license," said ACLU attorney Raul Pinto. "There is simply no reason for officials to stigmatize people who are in the U.S. legally with an unnecessary marker that could lead to harassment, confusion, and racial profiling."
Almost from the moment President Barack Obama announced the program in June, states across the country grappled with how and whether to issue driver's licenses to those granted legal presence.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said it is up to officials in each state to make their own determination about what to do. Many states, including Oregon and Georgia, have announced that they will grant driving privileges to those eligible.
In Arizona, where Republican Gov. Jan Brewer has pledged that DACA youths will not get driver's licenses, the state's DMV still lists federal work permits among the documents making people eligible for one.
The issue is especially politically charged in North Carolina, where current state law ordains a driver's license will be issued to anyone who holds valid federal documentation of their "legal presence" in the United States.
The office of the state's Democratic attorney general in an opinion last month said that under federal law, DACA participants have a "legal presence," even if they do not have "lawful status." Therefore, state law requires that DACA participants be granted licenses. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's administration agreed, announcing last week the DMV would begin issuing the licenses.
That has upset many conservatives in McCrory's own party, including Rep. Mark Brody, R-Union. He is one of four freshmen legislators who introduced a bill Thursday to bar the DMV from issuing licenses to DACA participants before June 15, potentially giving time to craft a permanent change to state law.
Brody said he believes strongly that the DACA program violated the U.S. Constitution because it was implemented without congressional approval. Obama said last year he was forced to take executive action by the decades-long failure of Congress to consider meaningful immigration reform.
"We need a time out," said Brody, a construction contractor. "We don't need to have the federal government dictating to us how we are supposed to issue licenses in this state. We do it, and that's a privilege we have under our Constitution."
Among the concerns raised by Brody and other bill sponsors is that illegal immigrants might use their new licenses to access social programs or register to vote, despite the bright pink markings. An extensive 2011 review of the state's 6.4 million registered voters by the N.C. Board of Elections found 12 instances where a non-citizen successfully cast a ballot.
Jose Rico, a 23-year-old Raleigh resident from Mexico who has already been issued DACA work permit, said he plans to be in line at the DMV on March 25 to get a license, even if it's pink. He will be extremely disappointed if state legislators pass a bill delaying or a denying his ability to do so.
"I don't know what's wrong with these people, why they're so afraid of people like me," said Rico, who has lived in the U.S. since he was 13. "It's so frustrating. I passed a federal background check, done everything right by the book. I'm paying taxes. I mean, we're just kids trying to go to school."
Associated Press writer Gosia Wozniacka contributed from Fresno, Calif.