Jan Brewer’s Immigration Backlash Begins

As Republicans rush to embrace Latinos, Arizona's governor finds herself on the wrong side of the fence.

Rod Lamkey Jr / The Washington Times / Landov

Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, seemed in perfect lockstep with both her party and Mitt Romney (whom she had heartily endorsed early on) when she issued Executive Order 2012-06 three months ago. The order barred “Dreamers”—young, undocumented immigrants granted temporary relief from deportation by a new Obama administration directive—from receiving Arizona driver licenses. At the time, Brewer called Dreamers “illegal people.”

Earlier this week, those same “illegal people” slapped Brewer with a federal lawsuit. Their lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Immigration Law Center, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund contend (PDF) that Governor Jan violated the constitutional rights of certain young, non-criminal immigrants granted work permits and Social Security cards, as well as a two-year temporary reprieve from deportation, by the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security.

Brewer’s actions, and the lawsuit, promise to cast Arizona as an extremist state once again. What’s more, the precedent-setting class-action case will likely drag on for years and be a costly affair, since tens of thousands of Dreamers are thought to live in Arizona. Only two other states—Michigan and Nebraska—have banned qualified Dreamers from driving, and those states are not being sued, advocates say, because they may reconsider their policies.

What’s remarkable about the reaction to the lawsuit in Arizona, and across the nation, is that immigration hardliners aren’t lining up to support Team Brewer. Support for Dreamers, in the meantime, continues to build. Nevada recently announced it would give Dreamers their driver licenses, and California changed its law to make sure its Dreamers could drive.

Just days before the Dreamers sued Brewer, the state’s largest daily, The Arizona Republic, combed through thousands of public records and discovered Arizona had given driver licenses to other groups of unauthorized immigrants with deferred action. The newspaper pegged Brewer’s driver-license policy as “contradictory.”

In August, when the Obama administration began implementing deferred action, Brewer said Dreamers who qualified were nevertheless “here illegally and unlawfully in the state of Arizona and it’s already been determined that you’re not allowed to have a driver’s license if you are here illegally.” At the time, Brewer was riding a wave of popularity after wagging her finger at the president on an airport tarmac near Phoenix. The Arizona Republic wasted no time blasting Brewer for wagging her finger a second time—at the Dreamers. Brewer, the newspaper contended, pandered to her base by picking on kids who deserved support instead of mean-spirited bullying. Not letting deferred-action kids drive to school or work in a sprawling metro area with limited public transportation seemed cruel to many.

Dreamers caught driving without licenses in Phoenix can be arrested and taken to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jail, where they might spend the night before they are moved to a federal immigration facility for processing. If they have deferred action, they’ll likely be released again. “These kids,” said Alessandra Soler, the executive director of the ACLU in Arizona, “are being bullied by the governor for her political gain.”

Brewer’s words and actions are artifacts of a not-so-long-ago era when Republicans embraced immigration hardliners and Mitt Romney vowed to veto the DREAM Act, a proposed federal law that would give young immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

The GOP’s oft-stated pre-election anti-Dreamer sentiment, and Obama’s countervailing deferred-action directive, sealed Latino support for the president in the days leading up to the election. Dreamers, with their heart-melting stories of patriotism and grit, are the nation’s most sympathetic undocumented immigrants. One pre-election poll found that likely voters favored Obama’s deferred-action policy by a 2-to-1 margin.

Post-election, Republicans licked their wounds and tried to figure out how to be more inclusive and naturally gravitated toward politically popular Dreamers, as evidenced by retiring Arizona senator Jon Kyl’s and Sen. Kay Baily Hutchison’s lukewarm proposal for an “Achieve Act” that would give Dreamers legal status but would block them from voting. (Dreamers aren’t keen on the proposal. They want to vote, eventually.)

Brewer, of course, has dug in her heels, even in the face of widespread criticism. Her spokesman, Matthew Benson, tells The Daily Beast his boss wasn’t posturing when she issued the executive order banning Dreamers from getting Arizona driver licenses. “It has nothing to do with posturing,” he said. “The law is the law.”

In response to The Arizona Republic article, which called the governor’s driver-license policy “contradictory,” Benson contends there are different kinds of deferred action. It’s OK to give Arizona driver licenses to immigrants with congressionally approved deferred action, but not OK to give them to Dreamers who get deferred action via an administrative order instead of Congress, he maintains.

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It’s a weak legal argument in the eyes of Jennifer Chang Newell, an ACLU attorney for the Dreamers. Several groups, like trafficking victims, get deferred action without congressional authority and via administrative action, she tells The Daily Beast.

(Dreamers and their advocates won’t comment on the lawsuit, referring all calls to their lawyers. On Facebook, Dreamers are warned not to trash-talk Brewer.)

In all, about 1.7 million young people nationwide could qualify for deferred action under the Obama directive. So far, about 309,000 have applied—including about 11,000 in Arizona. Less than 60,000 have been approved nationwide. Applicants must show they arrived in the United States before the age of 16, have no criminal records, have lived here for years, and have either a high-school diploma or a GED (or if not, must show they are still in school.) With deferred action, they are free for two years to attend college, work, and join the military without fear of deportation.

Benson, the Brewer spokesman, says Arizona, if it is so inclined, could follow California’s lead and change the law so that it’s clear that Dreamers can drive. Odd as it may seem for a state that just three years ago passed SB 1070, which aimed to kick every undocumented immigrant out of Arizona, that’s not entirely beyond the realm of possibility. Republicans have lost their supermajority in the Arizona statehouse, immigration hawks have been largely voted or kicked out of office, and new business-friendly Republican politicos seem more inclined to work with ranchers and businessmen on immigration reform in the moderating Grand Canyon State.

Brewer, who usually has a keen sense of which way political winds blow, seems strangely out of step these days. Earlier this week, she went against the wishes of hospitals and insurance companies by ceding state control of health-care exchanges to the federal government as the Affordable Care Act is implemented. The move delighted local Democrats, who now peg Brewer as an anti-business and anti-immigrant extremist. But the governor is anything but an extremist, her spokesman says. She issued the driver-license directive to clarify existing state law, he repeats. And she’s got nothing against Dreamers. The governor, according to Benson, “is sympathetic to this group and the hurdles they face.”