Arizona House debates licenses for immigrants
PHOENIX -- After Mabel Muoz was stopped by police while driving back to her college dormitory, the honor student was terrified to learn she would be spending the night in jail with criminals because she didn't have a driver's license.
"It was horrible," Muoz recalled after a House hearing Thursday on driver's licenses for immigrants. "I've been following the rules, but I can't follow this rule because they won't let me get a driver's license."
Arizona Democratic lawmakers in a state long known for its headline-making immigration crackdowns urged their Republican counterparts to extend driver's licenses to young immigrants granted legal status by President Barack Obama
"If we don't, I fear that we are creating a generation of anger and resentment ... a generation that has felt the rejection of a society that would rather see investment in their incarnation rather than their education," said Democratic Rep. Lydia Hernandez.
Legislation sponsored by Democratic Rep. Catherine Miranda would allow immigrants who have obtained federally issued employment authorization to legally drive in Arizona. The House Transportation Committee heard from proponents of the bill Thursday without voting on it. Supporters said Arizona's roads would be safer if more people had driver's licenses.
Transportation Committee chairwoman Rep. Karen Fann said she would not call a vote on the bill because she wanted lawmakers to absorb the subject without distraction.
"This is our time to listen," she said. "Sometimes we are so frustrated that we are so busy yelling and screaming that we forget to listen."
Arizona law does not allow drivers without satisfactory proof of legal status to obtain a license. The Department of Homeland Security issued a memo in January that said young immigrants granted "deferred action" status are legally in the country.
Obama said in July that people younger than 30 brought to the U.S. before they turned 16 could apply for deferral. They will be granted work permits and Social Security numbers.
Republican Gov. Jan Brewer has issued an executive order barring state agencies from giving driver's licenses to those granted deferral. The decision sparked a federal lawsuit by some people denied licenses. That suit is pending.
Brewer said Monday she had not changed her position.
Miranda said Brewer could be persuaded to change her mind, citing the governor's recent about-face on expanding health care access for Arizona under the federal health care law.
Muoz, who graduated last year from Arizona State University, said she hoped the hearing was a sign Republican lawmakers were open to change.
"I am going to be legal here, and doesn't that mean I should be able to drive?" she said during the committee meeting. "What harm would our driver's licenses do to you?"
Miranda said it was significant that Republican leadership allowed the bill to be heard during a hearing, but she lamented that the debate was one-sided and conceded the bill has an uphill battle to gain support in the GOP-controlled legislature. No one spoke against the bill, but committee members also did not take it up for debate.
Lucia Guerra-Rodriquez, an insurance agent, said arrests of drivers who cannot legally obtain insurance can overwhelm court dockets. Arizona requires drivers to obtain insurance, but drivers can't apply for insurance without a legal license.
"Accidents with people without insurance cause insurance rates to rise for everyone," she said.
Todd Landfried, executive director of the business group Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, said denying legal workers licenses depresses the economy by making it harder for people to find and obtain work and pay taxes.
"Their ability to drive is intrinsically linked to employment," he said. "We see no downside to providing driver's license to those who have met all the legal requirements for obtaining one."