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Federal judges question motives in Arizona policy against driver's licenses for immigrants

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TUCSON, Arizona — An attorney for the state of Arizona ran into pointed questions from appeals court judges during a hearing on the state's now-reversed policy of denying driver's licenses to young immigrants.

A lower court issued a permanent injunction against that policy early this year, and the state now wants it to be reinstated.

Arizona Deputy Solicitor General Dominic E. Draye argued in favor of reinstating a ban on driver's licenses for immigrants who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows them to legally work while shielding them from deportation. President Barack Obama created the program in 2012 for young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Participants must meet age and education requirements and must not have a criminal record to enroll.

Former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, issued an executive order in August 2012 directing state agencies to deny driver's licenses and other public benefits to immigrants who get work authorization under the Obama policy.

The state has argued that it denied licenses over liability concerns and to reduce the risk of the licenses being used to improperly access public benefits.

But two of the judges in court Thursday were skeptical of Draye's arguments on other technical matters, and one went as far as questioning whether the state policy was driven by racism.

Judge Harry Pregerson said there's no evidence that issuing licenses to DACA recipients has been harmful in any way.

"So what is the problem? Does it come down to racism? Does it come down to discrimination against these people?" he asked.

"Judge, I wish you wouldn't say things like that," Draye said.

The case was brought forward by the ACLU, the National Immigration Law Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund on behalf a group of young immigrants who say the ban on driver's licenses impeded on their ability to work and go to school and was discriminatory.

Attorney Karen Tumlin, an attorney for the National Immigration Law Center representing the immigrants, was also challenged by the judges, including one who said her arguments had been "schizophrenic."

Tumlin argued that the Arizona policy violates equal protection law.

"The inescapable conclusion is that this case is about discrimination, plain and simple," Tumlin said.

Pregerson said the panel would consider the arguments and make a decision at a later time.

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