IOWA CITY - Iowa will not issue driver's licenses to young immigrants who entered the country illegally but are now are eligible to work in the U.S. under a federal program, state officials announced Thursday.
President Barack Obama announced a policy change in June that lets some illegal immigrants apply for temporary work permits if they were brought to the country as children. The "deferred action" program lets them seek a renewable, two-year reprieve from deportation if they meet specific age, residency and education requirements.
But the Iowa Department of Transportation said state law does not allow it to issue driver's licenses or identification cards to people who are in the country illegally. State lawyers concluded that the federal program does not extend lawful status to the immigrants and does not offer them a pathway to citizenship, said Iowa DOT director Paul Trombino III.
"We feel we don't have the authority to issue the licenses," Trombino said Thursday.
Trombino said his office reviewed the federal policy in consultation with Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. He said the department issued one driver's license and one identification card to residents who were accepted into the federal program, but it now plans to notify them that their cards are no longer valid.
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor believes state officials should follow the law.
"Should the Legislature wish to make changes, the governor will review their proposals and would carefully consider any legislation that arrived at his desk," Albrecht said in an email.
The DOT's statement came in response to an October letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which asked the state to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants who receive deferred action status.
Omar Mex Valle, 24, came to western Iowa eight years ago from the Mexican city of Campeche, on the Yucatan Peninsula. He was accepted into the federal deferred action program in October, passed the state driving tests, and applied for work as a bank teller in Denison. Now, Mex Valle said he may have to hitch a ride from friends or relatives if he gets the job.
"I don't know what's going to happen," he said Thursday. "I hope they don't take my license away."
ACLU of Iowa executive director Ben Stone said the Iowa DOT misinterpreted the law. Stone said his group was still discussing how to respond, but actions could include a lawsuit against the state or a push for legislation in Iowa. Stone said the state's position could lead some immigrants to simply drive without licenses to get to their jobs.
"The ACLU of Iowa and its allies are deeply disturbed by this decision," Stone said. "This has terrible consequences."
Advocates for the young immigrants said some are now in legal limbo, because they've already applied for and received Iowa driver's licenses.
"This is just totally wrong," said Joe Henry, Iowa state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Des Moines. "It goes entirely against what the president was attempting to do."
Henry said the decision could affect between 4,000 and 10,000 young immigrants in Iowa who are eligible to participate in the program.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said each state can decide whether to issue licenses or extend other benefits to young immigrants who qualify. Advocates for the immigrants say denying them licenses will lead to many unlicensed drivers.
At least 18 states have said "deferred action" recipients will be eligible for licenses. Three other states - New Mexico, Washington and Utah - already grant driver's licenses or privilege cards regardless of immigration status, according to the National Immigration Law Center.
But several Republican governors have said they will not issue driver's licenses to immigrants who qualify, including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman.
In August, Heineman announced that his state would continue to deny licenses, welfare benefits and other public assistance to illegal immigrants unless required by state law to offer services. Earlier this month, he said he expected that the state would vigorously defend itself against any lawsuit that challenged the decision. His comments came after Brewer was sued in Arizona.
The "deferred action" program applies to illegal immigrants who came to the United States before they turned 16 years old and who were 30 or younger as of June 15. To qualify, they also must have lived continuously in the United States for at least five years, be enrolled in school and have a clean criminal record.
Hundreds of thousands of young immigrants could benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which went into effect just months before the presidential election, in which the Hispanic vote played an important role.