BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The state of Alabama said it will begin allowing hundreds of immigrants to take driver's license tests Friday under a new Obama administration rule, a move that avoids another potential fight over immigration policy.
While the state has battled the U.S. Justice Department and private groups for months over Alabama's strict crackdown on illegal immigrants, the state Department of Public Safety said it will honor certifications granted under an Obama program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
The program grants valid federal work permits to qualified applicants who were brought into the United States as children without legal authorization and don't have criminal records, among other qualifications.
Sgt. Steven Jarrett, a Public Safety spokesman, said certain offices will begin conducting tests and issuing licenses for program participants on Friday. The state determined the program isn't at odds with Alabama law, he said.
Jarrett said 631 people have been approved for certification in Alabama, and as many as 1,500 could be eventually.
Many state driver license offices already have long lines, but Jarrett said the new applicants shouldn't affect operations.
"We expect the impact to be limited because of the number of people involved," Jarrett said.
Driver's licenses issued to immigrants with federal certifications will carry the letters "FN" for "foreign national," just like licenses issued to anyone else who is not a U.S. citizen, Jarrett said.
Groups that joined the administration in opposing the state's immigration law said they were glad the state decided to provide licenses to qualified applicants under the federal program.
"The granting of licenses to these aspiring Americans is a positive step forward," said Sam Brooke, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. "Having drivers be licensed, registered, and insured makes everyone safer, and is in everyone's interest."
Jarrett said the state conducted tests at four driver's license offices to make sure the Public Safety database would work with the new program.
Immigrants began getting deferred status under the federal program weeks ago, and some states began granting driver's licenses to participants almost immediately. Other states studied the rules until the federal government provided additional information on how the program would work.
Arizona — with a tough immigration law that served as a model for Alabama's — refused to grant driver's licenses and is being sued. Alabama could have taken a similar course but decided instead to provide licenses to people participating in the program.
Jarrett said the state would allow people to take driver's license tests as long as their federal designation remains.