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Judge to hear Arizona immigrant driver's license ban suit

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer listens to a question from a media member about the Supreme Court's decision on SB1070 in Phoenix, Arizona, June
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer listens to a question from a media member about the Supreme Court's decision on SB1070 in Phoenix, Arizona, June

By Tim Gaynor

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Lawyers will ask a federal judge on Friday to prevent Arizona from denying driver's licenses to young illegal immigrants granted temporary legal status by the federal government in the southwest state's latest court clash over the Obama administration's immigration policies.

Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Phoenix last November against Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and two state transport department officials on behalf of five immigrants from Mexico who qualify for deferred deportation status under President Barack Obama's program.

The suit challenges the legality of an executive order issued by Brewer in August that denied young migrants licenses, saying that the federal government program did not give them lawful status or entitle them to public benefits.

The lawyers say that Brewer's order is preempted by the federal government's authority to regulate immigration and violates the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs. They will seek to have the measure enjoined while the case is pending.

"We want the judge to block the governor ... from continuing to discriminate against these students," said Victor Viramontes, national senior counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups that brought the suit.

The court battle is the latest for Brewer, a Republican who has become a major antagonist of Obama's Democratic administration and its immigration policies.

About 40 states and the District of Columbia have confirmed that they are granting driver's licenses or plan to do so for undocumented youths who received a short-term reprieve from Obama under the program in June.

'DEFENDING ARIZONA LAW'

While Republicans in some states have opposed drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, only Arizona and Nebraska have said outright that young immigrants are not eligible.

Under Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, immigrants who came to the United States as children and meet certain other criteria can apply for a work permit for a renewable period of two years. They also can obtain Social Security numbers.

An estimated 1.7 million youths are potentially eligible for the program, of whom about 80,000 live in Arizona. As of mid-February, about 200,000 applicants nationwide been granted deferred action, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

They are considered to be lawfully present during that period, although they do not have full legal status. But Brewer maintained that the president's policy did not "confer upon them any lawful or authorized status and does not entitle them to any additional public benefits."

Her spokesman, Matthew Benson, said state law requires individuals to have "federally authorized presence" to qualify for a license, and Obama's action did not amount to that.

"Governor Brewer is intent on defending Arizona law, and is confident the court will uphold the state's action," Benson said.

Brewer signed a controversial bill cracking down on illegal immigrants into law in 2010, setting up a clash with the Obama administration. The law's centerpiece that requires police to check the immigration status of people they stop if they suspect they are in the country illegally was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.

The hearing comes as Obama is pushing Congress to pass him a bill overhauling the U.S. immigration system, granting millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, as well as tightening security on the Mexico border.

Bipartisan groups in both chambers of the U.S. Congress are close to completing work on a draft bill.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)

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