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Some States Put Brakes On Driver's Licenses For Illegal Immigrants

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Lucas Codognolla's hands shake as he waits in line at the Bridgeport, Conn., DMV for his turn to take the road test.

"I don't know if it's nerves or the excitement, you know?" he says.

The 22-year-old's family emigrated from Brazil when was just 9. When he turned 16 and wanted to get his driver's license, his parents sat him down and told him the truth: He was in the country illegally.

Initially, he lied to his friends about why he couldn't drive, he says. But then, as he got older, driving simply became necessary.

"I had to drive because I had a job that I had to go to. I had to go to school," Codognolla says. "And there was no way for me to rely on my parents to take me everywhere."

His friends gave him a hard time for always driving slowly, he says. But Codognolla was petrified of being pulled over.

"Not putting your signals on, or whatever, and that could potentially lead to being an immigration problem," he explains.

Last summer, President Obama announced a new federal immigration policy for young people like Codognolla, who were brought to this country before they turned 16. If they're in school or have a high school diploma and meet other requirements, they're allowed to stay in the U.S. for at least two years and get work papers.

Now, as many as 30 states are allowing immigrants with this new designation to receive driver's licenses, according to the National Immigration Law Center, which advocates for immigrant rights. Tanya Broder, an attorney with the center, says that access to driver's licenses is a matter of state law.

"The way that most state laws are written is that as long as somebody is authorized by federal law to be present in the United States, then they are eligible for a driver's license," she says.

Legal Challenges

Some states, however, have decided that the people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program don't qualify.

"It wasn't approved through Congress," says Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

"It's represented nowhere in the law. And for that reason we believe that these individuals don't qualify for a driver's license in the state of Arizona," Benson adds.

Like most states, Arizona offers licenses to some immigrants who qualify for other deferred action programs, including victims of domestic abuse and political refugees. But Benson insists Obama's new program for young people is of a special nature.

The federal agency that oversees lawful immigration sees things differently.

"The relief an individual receives through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals process is the same for immigration purposes as that obtained by any other person who receives deferred action," says Chris Bentley, a press secretary for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The National Immigration Law Center has filed legal challenges over the issue in Arizona and Michigan. But, even in states like Connecticut, officials aren't just giving away licenses. Lucas Codognolla still has to pass his road test.

When he pulls his car back up to the DMV after the test, the examiner has good news.

"You're going to go inside now and get your license," she tells him.

After the paperwork, fee and photo, he's handed the license.

"Wow, I got my license," he says, gripping it in both hands and staring. "See, I'm a little speechless."

The piece of plastic, he explains, is more than just the ability to drive without looking over his shoulder for police; it means having an identity.

Copyright 2013 WSHU Public Radio Group. To see more, visit http://www.wshu.org/.

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