If Christian Avila lived a few hundred miles to the west, he would have a driver’s license, qualify for in-state college tuition and a host of other opportunities available to young people granted legal status by President Barack Obama two years ago.
But Avila lives in Phoenix, and the 24-year-old immigrant who was brought here from Mexico by his parents at age 9 still has to navigate the sprawling city in fear as he drives to school or work.
“You get nervous, your legs start to tingle a little bit when there’s a cop behind you, when you’re doing nothing wrong by driving to work,’ said Avila, a community college student and immigration activist. “You’re not breaking any rules, you’re following the law. But unfortunately it’s where we live.”
With last week’s action by Obama that expanded the deferred action program and added millions of other immigrants, Avila’s plight highlights a harsh reality about the president’s changes. The president may be allowing them to remain in the U.S., but it doesn’t mean their state will let them drive a car, get an education at an affordable rate or obtain health insurance.
A patchwork of rules began to form in states — largely along political lines — after the president allowed some young immigrants to stay in the country. Conservative states like Nebraska and Arizona kept them from getting driver’s licenses while liberal locations were much more welcoming in terms of state services and benefits.
Now, states must make new decisions on how to respond to the president’s action that allows millions more immigrants to remain in the U.S.
In California, Democrats, immigration groups and health care advocates are pushing for the immigrants to receive health care under the state’s version of the Medicaid program. The California Department of Health Care Services is deciding how to proceed. The president’s action excludes immigrants who came to the country illegally from qualifying for federal health benefits.
In Nevada, officials are drawing up a bill for the Legislature making clear that unauthorized immigrants can become teachers in the state. Current rules specify that a prospective teacher must be a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident before they can receive a teaching license in Nevada.
A new gubernatorial administration in Arizona will have to decide whether to continue a hard-line approach toward state benefits that outgoing Gov. Jan Brewer took.
After Obama took action in 2012 granting legal status to 1.8 million young people brought to the U.S. as children, Brewer issued an executive order denying them driver’s licenses or other state benefits, including in-state tuition at the state’s public universities. A federal appeals court ruled the license ban was unconstitutional, and Brewer is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Our position is unilateral action by the president does nothing to change the fact that an illegal alien’s presence is the United States is not authorized under federal law,” Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder said.
Arizona’s Republican Governor-elect, Doug Ducey, has said he intends to continue Brewer’s current ban, if it survives court challenges.
Maryland’s Democratic governor, Martin O’Malley, has taken a decidedly different tack. He’s a supporter of state laws granting in-state tuition to people without legal status and grants them driver’s licenses. He has even been willing to get into a policy fight with Obama on the stream of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America over the Mexican border, criticizing the White House proposal earlier this year that could have expedited the deportation of the children.
Arizona remains an outlier in its treatment of immigrants granted work permits and is among the most harsh when it comes to those who remain in the U.S. without legal authorization.
States surrounding Arizona provide in-state tuition to all residents, regardless of immigration status. And in January, California joins nine other states in allowing immigrants who can’t prove they’re in the U.S legally to get a driver’s license.
Utah provides leniency when it comes to driving privileges and education, despite passing a law in 2011 that mirrored Arizona’s landmark immigration crackdown, SB1070. The state issues driving-privilege cards that must be renewed annually for those who cannot prove they’re in the country legally.
Nearly 36,300 were issued last year, said Nannette Rolfe, the director of Utah’s Driver License Division. Utah also offers in-state tuition at public universities and colleges to residents not in the U.S. legally.
To be eligible, students must have attended a Utah high school for at least three years and earned a diploma or GED. They can’t hold a non-immigrant visa and must file an application to legalize their immigration status when eligible to do so. In the 2012-2013 academic students, 929 students took advantage of the program.
Despite the fact that life would be easier if he left the state, Avila said he’s staying put.
“This is where we got dirty as kids, this is where we learn how to speak English, this is where we learn how to do a lot of stuff,” he said. “Here in Arizona is where my friends, my family, live and I don’t see it as an option to run away, but rather stand up and change the conditions that we live under.”
AP reporters Judy Lin in Sacramento, California, Michelle Price in Salt Lake City, Michelle Rindels in Las Vegas and Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland contributed to this report.
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