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U.S. immigrants decry "scarlet letter" drivers licenses in North Carolina

By Colleen Jenkins

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina will begin issuing driver's licenses to some young undocumented immigrants who have temporary permission to stay in the United States, but critics have complained that the look of the licenses amounts to a "scarlet letter" that could invite discrimination.

Alabama is also poised to start granting licenses to immigrants, putting the two southern states in line with most of the country. But North Carolina's plan has drawn fire for a dark pink stripe at the top of its licenses and the words "No Lawful Status" in red.

"Branding somebody with a pink stripe that is distinguishing them from everyone else... It just sets them up for differential treatment," said Tanya Broder, a senior attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. "It's gratuitous."

No such complaints have emerged in Alabama, where officials said the licenses will be marked "FN" for Foreign National.

Broder said about 40 states and the District of Columbia have confirmed that they are granting driver's licenses or plan to do so for undocumented youth who receive short-term reprieve from deportation under a program announced last June by President Barack Obama, a Democrat who has sought to create more opportunities for children of immigrant families.

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

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 through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. They also can obtain Social Security numbers.

As of mid-February, 199,460 of the estimated 1.7 million people who are potentially eligible for the program had been granted deferred action, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. They are considered to be lawfully present during that period but do not have full legal status.

North Carolina was among a handful of states that initially said they would not give driver's licenses to young recipients of deferred action. But after the state attorney general's office said state law required the licenses to be issued, officials said they would begin doing so on March 25.

State law requires that temporary licenses have a distinctive marking and an explanation of their limited term to distinguish them from regular licenses, said Mike Charbonneau, a spokesman for the state transportation department.

A spokeswoman for Republican Governor Pat McCrory said he supported the decision to issue the licenses as designed.

Immigrant advocates are considering ways, including possible legal action, to challenge the look of the licenses, what some refer to as "scarlet letters," said Jeff Shaw, spokesman for the North Carolina Justice Center, a research and advocacy group.

"It will make a lot of people feel discriminated (against)," said Yazmin Garcia Rico, 23, a Mexican immigrant and deferred action recipient in North Carolina. She said she worried immigrants with the distinctive licenses would have trouble getting services.

ALABAMA POLICY TO TAKE EFFECT FRIDAY

In Alabama, which passed one of the toughest state measures on illegal immigration, young immigrants who have been approved for deferred action will be allowed to begin applying for driver's licenses on Friday, officials said this week.

Approximately 1,500 people in Alabama are eligible for deferred action under the federal program, said Sergeant Steve Jarrett of the state's public safety department.

Their licenses will be marked with "FN" for Foreign National, which is standard for licenses given to anyone who is not a U.S. citizen, he said.

Guadalupe Rosaliano, 18, of Decatur, Alabama, said getting a license will mark another step toward her ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer and one day running for Congress.

The high school graduate, who has lived in Alabama since her parents left Mexico when she was 2, said she is looking for a job and hoping to apply to colleges now that she is armed with a work permit and Social Security number.

"This will make it easier for most of us to get to work," Rosaliano said of the licenses. "I plan to get mine as soon as I can practice my driving better."

Young immigrants in Arizona and Nebraska don't have that option. The two states have remained firm in their refusals to grant licenses to those given deferred action under the federal plan, Broder said.

A coalition of civil rights organizations sued Arizona over its stance, and a judge will hear arguments on March 22 from opponents seeking to have the decision blocked and state officials who want the suit dismissed.

A spokesman for Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, said state law requires individuals to have "federally authorized presence" to qualify for a license, and Obama's action did not amount to that.

"Governor Brewer is intent on defending Arizona law, and is confident the court will uphold the state's action," said spokesman Matthew Benson.

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Paul Thomasch and David Gregorio)

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