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Judge hears suit on Arizona's ban on immigrant driver's licenses

By Brad Poole and Tim Gaynor

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Lawyers asked a federal judge on Friday to prevent Arizona from denying driver's licenses to young illegal immigrants granted temporary legal status by the government in the Southwestern state's latest court clash over the Obama administration's immigration policies.

Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit in District Court in Phoenix in November against Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and two state transport department officials on behalf of five immigrants from Mexico who qualify for deferred deportation status under President Barack Obama's program.

The suit challenges the legality of an executive order issued by Brewer in August that denied the young migrants licenses, arguing that the government's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program did not give them lawful status or entitle them to public benefits.

On Friday, Judge David Campbell heard brief arguments in which the plaintiffs sought an injunction ordering Arizona to issue the licenses pending the court's ruling. The state asked for the case to be dismissed.

At issue is whether the plaintiffs' deferred deportation status constitutes federal "authorization" to be in the United States, a requirement under Arizona law for immigrants to obtain drivers licenses.

"Every non-citizen with a work permit is considered to be authorized, with one exception - everyone but DACA," Jennifer Chang Newell, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing the plaintiffs, told the court.

Newell argued that Brewer's policy amounts to an attempt by the state of Arizona to determine immigration status, a power reserved only for the federal government.

The court battle is the latest for Brewer, a Republican who has become a major antagonist of Obama's Democratic administration and its immigration policies.

About 40 states and the District of Columbia have confirmed they are granting driver's licenses or plan to do so for undocumented youths who received a short-term reprieve from Obama under the program in June.

While Republicans in some U.S. states have opposed drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, only Arizona and Nebraska have said outright that young immigrants are not eligible.

'NO LAWFUL OR AUTHORIZED STATUS'

Under Obama's program, immigrants who came to the United States as children and meet certain other criteria can apply for a work permit for a renewable period of two years. They also can obtain Social Security numbers.

An estimated 1.7 million youths are potentially eligible for the program, of whom about 80,000 live in Arizona. As of mid-February, about 200,000 applicants nationwide been granted deferred action, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

They are considered to be lawfully present in the United States during that period, although they do not have full legal status. Brewer maintains that the president's policy did not "confer upon them any lawful or authorized status and does not entitle them to any additional public benefits."

Attorney Doug Northrop, representing the state, told the court there is no federal definition of "authorized" presence, and that the plaintiffs do not have "lawful" status.

Arizona, he argued, is not determining migrants' status, but is simply ruling that they cannot have drivers licenses. The state "didn't create their own status. They just said (they) don't meet it," he told the judge.

Campbell said he would rule on the issue in the coming weeks.

In 2010, Brewer signed into law a controversial bill cracking down on illegal immigrants and setting up the clash with the Obama administration. The centerpiece of the Arizona law, which requires police to check the immigration status of every person they stop if they suspect they are in the country illegally, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.

Obama is pushing Congress to pass a bill overhauling the U.S. immigration system, granting millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, as well as tightening security on the border with Mexico.

Democrats and Republicans in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives are close to completing work on a draft bill.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Christopher Wilson)

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