DES MOINES - Reversing course on a controversial decision, the Iowa Department of Transportation said Wednesday it will issue driver licenses to young illegal immigrants allowed to remain in the county by a presidential order.
"Today, those with status of deferred action childhood arrival can bring in their documentation and show they know how to drive, and go through the same process everybody else goes through to get their ID or license," said DOT Director Paul Trombino.
State officials argued in December that the federal rules didn't give them legal authority to issue licenses to the immigrants. But the Obama administration clarified its policy last week, saying young people allowed to remain in the country under the "Dream Act" policy are considered to be authorized residents.
The Transportation Department said that because of that clarification, it can issue driver licenses and nonoperator identification cards.
Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad, said the Republican governor is supportive of the DOT decision because the new federal information means the agency is following Iowa law.
Civil liberties groups applauded the decision.
"We think that recognizing that the Dreamers are eligible for driver's licenses under Iowa law shows leadership in keeping our state a welcoming place and recognizing the contributions that these bright youngsters are making to our communities," said Rita Bettis, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.
Under the federal program, illegal immigrants can receive renewable, two-year deportation reprieves if they were brought into the U.S. as children. They also must meet specific age, residency and education requirements. Bettis estimated that the decision on driver's licenses could impact thousands of young people in Iowa.
Ana Mancebo, of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said her group was "overjoyed" by the decision.
"It's the right thing to do to give drivers licenses to these kids because they've undergone extensive background searches," Mancebo said. "We're going to continue to push for greater immigration reform that would possibly lead to a path for citizenship for those deferred action kids."
Most states have issued licenses to this group of immigrants, said Iowa ACLU Communications Director Veronica Fowler. She said Michigan, Arizona and Nebraska have refused.