By James Ewinger, The Plain Dealer
on March 29, 2013 at 3:00 PM, updated March 30, 2013 at 4:52 AM
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio will allow some undocumented immigrants with temporary legal status the right to get driver’s licenses.
The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles announced the policy change early Friday afternoon, and Jose Mendez, 20, who was born in Mexico, was one of the first to benefit.
He got his license at the Parma BMV office at 4:27 p.m. He went to the office after receiving word from the Department of Public Safety about the new policy.
The Cleveland resident said in January that a woman working at the office turned him away after telling him “you’re not even supposed to be in this country.”
The employee was not at the office on Friday, he said, and everyone treated him well.
The bureau directive should clear up statewide confusion at registrar offices. There were reports that some offices gave licenses to qualified immigrants, while workers at other offices, like the one in Parma, denied licenses.
Deputy registrars are now instructed to issue temporary licenses to qualified Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, after the applicant’s immigration status is confirmed through a federal data base.
The decision follows an opinion from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine that DACA grantees are eligible for licenses, said a bureau news release.
The Obama administration announced the DACA program in June, and it went into effect in August.
The federal initiative gives two years of legal status to immigrants who came here illegally as children, bestowing the same rights as any U.S. citizen, such as going to school, being able to work and driving a car. The status is renewable every two years.
Government figures hold that as of January, more than 150,000 young people nationwide were approved for the program.
According to the National Immigration Law Center, 37 states and the District of Columbia already gave driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
David Leopold, a Cleveland immigration lawyer, said that people granted deferred action are considered to be here legally.
People in the DACA program are considered to have a “lawful presence” in this country. Leopold said Ohio authorities may have been confused that “lawful presence” is not the same as lawful immigration status which would mean they had visas.
Leopold said the DACA program is for people “who found themselves here through no fault of their own.”
He said Mendez campaigned for months to get Ohio to recognize his legal status and that of many other Ohio residents.
Mendez made another attempt to get a license last week in Cleveland. He brought with him a personal letter from DeWine stating that the BMV would have to accept driver’s license applications from individuals that fall under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Initiative.
But a worker at the BMV office disagreed and turned Mendez away.
Leopold said Friday that when DeWine was a U.S. senator “he became very knowledgeable about immigration law. He said DeWine’s opinion has spared the state a lot of litigation.
The BMV news release said Ohio will be one of the few states taking the extra step of going to a federal data base for confirmation.
At the other end of the spectrum are Nebraska and Arizona, the only states where officials refuse to recognize DACA participants’ eligibility for driver’s licenses.
“I didn’t want Ohio to be another Arizona,” Mendez said.