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Michigan to issue driver's licenses to immigrants

11:19 PM, Feb 1, 2013   |    comments
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Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson (Detroit Free Press file photo)

DETROIT (Det. Free Press) -- In a reversal, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson will now grant driver's licenses to young immigrants who qualify to stay in the U.S. under a new federal program.

For several months, Johnson has said her office will not give licenses to immigrants who qualify under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program the Obama administration created in June. Her earlier position had made Michigan one of only three states in the U.S. - Arizona and Nebraska the other two - to deny licenses to DACA recipients, drawing strong criticism from immigrant groups and others who said it would hurt the development and growth of Michigan.

As late as Monday, Johnson had said she would not grant licenses to DACA immigrants.

But Johnson announced today that she's reversing her position, effective Feb. 19. Johnson said she changed her mind after an agency with the Department of Homeland Security updated its guidelines on Jan. 18 to say that DACA immigrants have legal status to work and study in the U.S.

Johnson's move may affect up to 23,000 young immigrants in Michigan and 1.7 million nationwide who could potentially qualify to stay in the U.S. under the DACA program.

DACA immigrants generally are those who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. Because they're in the U.S. through no fault of their own, activists have been pushing for them to be allowed in the country since most of their lives have been spent here.

But Johnson said in October that DACA immigrants could not get licenses, a move that advocates said would have made life difficult for those trying to work or study. Johnson said she was merely following federal guidelines, which she said weren't clear about the legal status of DACA recipients.

Today's reversal was praised by activists. They have been arguing that Johnson's earlier position was shortsighted in a place like Michigan, which was the only state in the country to have lost population over the past decade and needs to attract more residents.

"It's long overdue," said Ryan Bates, director of the Michigan chapter of Alliance for Immigrant Rights. "I'm very pleased the Secretary of State has seen the light."

Jose Franco, 25, co-founder of the Detroit-based immigrant rights group One Michigan, has applied to be a DACA immigrant.

Franco said "I'm excited" by Johnson's reversal. "All the hard work paid off."

Miriam Aukerman, an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, said:

"Today's announcement is a tremendous victory for the thousands of young people who ... have only known this country to be home. They have the same dreams as other young Americans."

By Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press Staff Writer

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