No Driver's Licenses for DREAMers? I'll Live Somewhere Else

Michigan is bleeding residents, but isn't courting DREAMers

Jan. 17, 2013— -- Javier Contreras is an honor roll student and last fall's homecoming king at Skyline High School. He's lived in Michigan since he was four years old, when he came with his family to the U.S. from Mexico.

He wants to study at the University of Michigan and eventually become an engineer. But if his ambitions become a reality someday, it will likely be in some place other than his hometown of Ann Arbor. He's undocumented, and that means a more challenging life in Michigan.

"My brother and I, we might have to leave," said Contreras. "It's almost like were being forced to. Anything would be nicer than being here right now. I'm so limited."

The 17-year-old DREAMer is one of more than 100,000 young immigrants nationwide that have been approved for a federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But now he faces a new barrier: The state of Michigan will not allow him to have a driver's license, making it difficult for him to even apply for work and go to school.

"Michigan state law requires that our customers be here legally before we can issue driver's licenses," said Gisgie Davila Gendreau, director of communications for Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, in an interview with ABC/Univision. "The federal government determines whether or not someone is here legally. So far what they have said is that DACA does not grant legal status, so Michigan is not able to grant licenses under state law."

Davila Gendreau said that state laws around driver's license also have an impact. "Different states have different laws governing the requirements to issue driver's licenses," Davila Gendreau said. "In Michigan's case, the requirement is that the customer be here legally. So we have to follow the state law."

Contreras is appealing his case, but his problem isn't unique.

States across the country continue to grapple with how to interpret the deferred action program and how its stipulations relate to issuing driver's licenses. Many states say that to obtain a driver's license a person needs to have "lawful status," and states like Michigan claim that DACA doesn't give undocumented immigrants such status. Other states, such as California and Nevada, say that because DACA recipients are granted work permits, they should also have the right to drive.

Michigan, along with Arizona, Nebraska, and Iowa, is denying driver's licenses while other states, including California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois and Nevada, have decided to issue licenses.

"You can't have states interpreting federal law," said Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano in an interview with ABC/Univision. As county executive, he serves an area that includes Detroit and Dearborn. Ficano's office shares a variety of responsibilities from roads to health care, and assisting in improving the economic development of the 43 communities that make up Wayne County.

Ficano believes that the federal decision to grant DREAMers deferred action entitles them to licenses, and that trying to block that pits his state against federal law. In addition to the legal concerns around the decision to deny driver's licenses, Ficano also thinks it's foolish for the state to turn away potential residents.

According to 2010 US Census figures, Detroit's population decreased 25% over the past decade. Michigan is the only state that has suffered such a significant loss of residents because of the failing auto industry, harsh economy, and no jobs.

"It sends the wrong message, especially for the state of Michigan," Ficano said. "We are starving for people...If you're a student or a person that is looking for a job in the area why would you go to a place that is more difficult? This is setting up roadblocks. They will leave to places like Florida or California because they don't seem to want to be reasonable in Michigan."

According to the Detroit News, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 undocumented teens and young adults qualify for the deferred action in Michigan. Retaining those residents wouldn't solve Michigan's population woes, but losing them certainly wouldn't help either.

Meanwhile, Contreras, 17 years old and thinking about the future, continues to move forward through his senior year at Skyline, applying to colleges and remaining as optimistic as possible.

"I really hope everything just gets resolved. I feel like it was just a misunderstanding of the law. I want a normal American life."