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Sorry Jan: Court sides with DACA and greenlights DREAMers to get driver’s licenses

It's been more than two years since President Barack Obama pissed off Gov. Jan Brewer when he relieved hundreds of thousands of undocumented young immigrants around the country from deportation, and gave them work permits and Social Security cards. Brewer responded by issuing her own executive action: None of them were to get driver's licenses in the state of Arizona.

That saga ended two weeks ago, immediately allowing roughly 22,000 people under Obama's DACA program to start driving. Thanks to a preliminary injunction by U.S. District Judge David Campbell, so-called DREAMers like 21-year-old Francisco Salcido were able to step into any MVD and apply for a license starting Dec. 22.

After working a graveyard shift at one of his two jobs, Salcido was asleep while his cellphone blew up with text messages with the news–the U.S. Supreme Court refused to keep blocking DREAMers from the road.

"I go to my mom and I'm like, 'Mom, it's final, we are getting the licenses," he says. "I thought she was just going to congratulate me with her hand, but she pulled me in and gave me a big hug."

Brewer and the DREAMers had been in a legal battle over this since 2012. Federal courts again and again ruled against the no licenses policy, saying the state's motives were not solid. Really, it made no sense to treat them differently from any other noncitizen, such as green card holders.

That day three weeks ago, Salcido felt independent. He could get from point A to point B and C without fear. He plans to get his license ASAP, but his schedule is complicated.

At least one aspect of his life in Tucson will get easier.

He won't have to rely on carpooling or public transportation to get to his classes at Pima Community College or his security guard gig. Then, there's also his job tutoring Native American youth on the Tohono O'odham Nation. The Mexico native travels there a handful of times a week as part of a federal program, aiming to increase the high school graduation rate on tribal land and prepare students for higher education.

Salcido, who's also the student committee director at Scholarships A-Z, a Tucson advocacy group for undocumented students, has been here for a decade.

His family fled Nogales, Sonora after witnessing a murder, which then turned into constant death threats to keep their mouths shut. The Salcido family planned to get asylum in the U.S., but that didn't happen.

"We knew we were undocumented, the struggles that we were going to go through," he says. "We knew we were coming here with nothing. We were always very careful not to tell anyone what our status was. We knew what we were. We knew how bad it was."

DACA was a miracle. At least for some members of the family.

Salcido and his younger brother are two out of three siblings who qualified. Both his parents are undocumented (they can't get deferred action because none of their children are U.S. citizens or legal residents) and the oldest sibling doesn't meet DACA requirements, because at the time Obama issued the program, his visa hadn't expired, which technically meant he'd been in the country legally.

The licenses ordeal, which Brewer announced the same day DACA was supposed to go into effect, was a bitter aftertaste to what should have been some of the sweetest news to reach Salcido and other Arizona DREAMers.

The state went on to become one of only two with the no licenses policy–-the other is Nebraska. The Arizona DREAM Act Coalition, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups, took it court. This win isn't just humanitarian. To many immigration rights advocates, it's also a huge plus for the state economy.

"We've been blocking generating that revenue," says Magdalena Verdugo, southeast Arizona area manager and vice president of school readiness at Chicanos Por La Causa. "Getting a license involves fees, getting a car ... insurance," and paying taxes, the list goes on.

Also, better jobs. The choices are limited when you don't have a license.

"More doors have opened for them and that is the exciting part," she says.

As an attempt to gasp for the last bit of oxygen that was left in this, Brewer vowed to take the issue back to the U.S. Supreme Court, even after the state has already spent about $1.5 million on legal fees, according to a report by the Arizona Republic.

"The right to determine who is issued a driver's license is reserved for the states–not the federal government or an unelected judiciary," Brewer said in a statement last month. "It is outrageous that Arizona is being forced to ignore longstanding state law and comply with a flawed federal court mandate that requires the state, at least temporarily, to issue driver licenses to individuals whose presence is in violation of federal law, as established by the United States Congress."

Her term is over. It's now up to Gov.-elect Doug Ducey, who'll be sworn in Monday, Jan. 5, to carry that torch, or focus his energy on other things.

"We don't know what these politicians can do," Salcido says. "Ducey is cut with the same scissors (as Brewer)."

For the DREAMers, the next step would be to keep fighting for in-state tuition at the state's public universities.

Salcido wants to be a doctor. But DREAMers pay out-of-state fees at the UA and the other two universities Salcido says now that they're able to apply for licenses–key documentation to prove residency in the state–the years-long struggle for in-state tuition can gain momentum.

"With DACA, we haven't been able to prove the residency requirement for the tuition and it sucks, because they know that we have been here for years," he says. "We can't be comfortable with what they give us, we have to continue fighting."

More by María Inés Taracena

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