Deferred Action and North Carolina's Driver's License Mark: The Scarlet Letter Redux

Man Covering FaceNorth Carolina’s controversial plan to mark driver's licenses issued to deferred action recipients was met with protests last week in Washington, D.C. Last month, North Carolina's Department of Transportation announced that individuals granted deferred action would receive licenses marked "No Lawful Status" in bright pink. Critics were quick to characterize the move a "modern-day scarlet letter." When the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was implemented last year, North Carolina initially indicated that it would not allow applicants with deferred action to receive driver's licenses, joining four other states - Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, and Nebraska. Iowa and Michigan have since changed stances, recently indicating that licenses would be issued to those granted deferred action.

Deferred Action is a program created for young undocumented immigrants who arrived as children and meet certain eligibility requirements.* Among the criteria, you must:

  • have entered the U.S. before turning sixteen;
  • have been under thirty-one years old as of June 15, 2012;
  • have continuously lived in the U.S. since June 15, 2007 up until the present;
  • have been physically present in the U.S. on June 15, 2012 and at the time of applying for deferred action;
  • have entered without inspection before June 15, 2012, or had your lawful status expired as of June 15, 2012;
  • be in school, have graduated from high school or obtained a high school completion certificate, obtained a GED certificate, or be an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces or Coast Guard; and
  • have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, three or more other misdemeanors, and not otherwise pose a threat to public safety or national security.

The Department of Homeland Security has been very clear that the program does not grant a lawful status; however, approval provides recipients with a two-year deferral of removal (deportation) and eligibility for work authorization where need can be shown. Supporters of immigration reform have embraced the program as a positive step from the administration. It was a long-awaited move that appeared at the tail end of President Obama's first term, conspicuously announced just in time for the presidential election. Long overdue though it was, the program was a step toward addressing the millions of undocumented who were brought here as children. The program could help an estimated 1.7 million young undocumented immigrants. By allowing work authorization eligibility, deferred action could lead to a social security number and state-issued identification. In doing so, these young people can rise from the shadows, work lawfully, and (continue to) contribute positively to our society and country.

North Carolina is among the small but vocal minority of states that have resisted the idea of granting state-issued identification and driver's licenses to deferred action recipients. While North Carolina has announced that it will grant driver's licenses, the "mark" brings to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne's American classic, The Scarlet Letter. The state's Republican governor, Pat McCrory, called the plan a “pragmatic compromise," which would be laughable if he wasn't being serious.

Like the protestors at the Capitol, I would like to know the purpose of having such a mark. What does it accomplish, other than trying to shame the card's holder? The plan is two steps backward after one forward. On one hand we recognize that deferred action is a special benefit for certain young undocumented individuals brought here as children, but on the other hand, the state wants to mark their identification so all will know - THEY HAVE "NO LAWFUL STATUS." The mark invites discrimination and makes the holder's immigration status (or lack thereof) known to all kinds of people who have no business knowing - the cashier verifying a purchase, the doorman at a club. The Deferred Action program was supposed to lift up those who arrived as children, but North Carolina is intent on pushing them back down and branding them.

I have met many deferred action applicants and recipients. And believe it or not, so have you. Maybe you just didn't know it. This is their home. They know no other country. They are students, hard workers, and dreamers. They want to continue with school, serve in the military, gain lawful employment. They want to rise one level higher than their parents, just like the rest of us. Marking these people, many of whom are still minors, is a device to shame them and appease anti-immigration reform voters. Any attempt to explain otherwise is a lie. Deferred action recipients are people who have proven that they were brought here as children and do not pose a risk to the community; in fact, they have shown a willingness and ability to contribute. Insisting on marking them is just the wrong fight to pick, the wrong group to target. Those supporting North Carolina's branding plan should be the ones to hang their heads in shame.

*If you are interested in learning more about the benefits of deferred action or want help determining if you are eligible, you should consult USCIS resources and an experienced immigration attorney (private / nonprofit).