Iowa DOT head defends immigrant license policy

DES MOINES – The head of Iowa’s Transportation Department defended himself Wednesday against criticism over a new policy barring driver’s licenses for certain young immigrants allowed by a new federal rule to live in the United States.

Iowa Department of Transportation Director Paul Trombino appeared before the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee, which oversees rules created by state agencies.

Vanessa Marcano, an immigrant from Venezuela who lives in Des Moines, cried as she pleaded for his agency to reconsider its decision.

“Shame on the Iowa Department of Transportation for this anti-immigration affront to crush the dreams of young hard-working people who love this country and who have given their heart and soul to be here,” she said.

The DOT announced in December that it would not issue driver’s licenses or identification cards to immigrants brought into the U.S. as children by parents who were not legal residents and who qualify for the new deferred action program announced by President Barack Obama in June.

The federal program does not provide legal status for the immigrants but does protect them from deportation for two years. The time period can be extended. The 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.

Trombino said his agency worked with lawyers in the Iowa Attorney General’s Office and Gov. Terry Branstad’s staff to interpret the impact of the rule on Iowa residents.

He said they believe that while the federal government allows those who meet the criteria to stay in the country and work, it does not give them legal authorization to be in the country, which is required to obtain a driver’s license.

“We do not have legal authority under Iowa law to issue a driver’s license or identification because they’re not authorized to be present in the United States,” he said.

Joe Henry, Iowa state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said the decision could affect between 4,000 and 10,000 young immigrants in Iowa who are eligible to participate in the program.

Criticism came from both Democrats and Republicans on the committee.

“What would you have them do? They’re brought in here by their parents. They’ve been raised here. They really probably don’t even speak whatever language of the country they came from,” said Rep. Guy Vander Linden, an Oskaloosa Republican. “Why would you want them to have authorization to work and not be able to drive to work with a license and have insurance?”

Republican Dawn Pettengill defended the department’s action.

“We’re not trying to throw barriers in front of anybody, we’re just trying to follow the laws and the rules,” she said.

Rep. Pam Jochum, a Dubuque Democrat, told Trombino the policy should be proposed in a bill to the Legislature.

Rita Bettis, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said she will ask Trombino to reconsider next week in a meeting. The group could file a lawsuit to challenge the policy.

ACLU chapters in Michigan and Arizona have sued to challenge similar policies.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said each state can decide whether to issue licenses. 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.