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Rights groups challenge Arizona's denial of benefits to immigrants

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Civil rights groups filed suit on Thursday to challenge an order by Arizona Republican Governor Jan Brewer blocking illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses despite receiving temporary legal status under an Obama administration program.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of five immigrants who qualify for deferred deportation status under a new policy by President Barack Obama's administration, says that the governor's executive order issued this summer was unconstitutional and should be blocked.

"This is a shameless attack on our youth," Alessandra Soler, the executive director of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which was one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

"When our youngest and brightest residents are prevented from getting licenses, going to school or work and pursuing their dreams, entire communities suffer," she added.

The Arizona Dream Act Coalition, a local youth group formed to advocate for young immigrants and to push for national immigration reform, is also a plaintiff in the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Phoenix.

Brewer, who has frequently clashed with Obama's Democratic administration since she signed a tough state crackdown on illegal immigrants into law two years ago, issued the executive order on August 15.

Her move to deny the benefits came in response to relaxed deportation rules issued by Obama in June, a policy that could affect an estimated 1.7 million immigrants nationwide, including roughly 80,000 in Arizona.

To qualify for the program, individuals must have been younger than 16 years old upon arrival into the country, currently not older than 30, have lived in the United States since June 15, 2007, and have no felony convictions.

"Federal ... authorities have lifted the shadow of deportation from these bright and hardworking (young people), but Arizona insists on pursuing its own immigration policy aimed at keeping them in the dark," said Jennifer Chang Newell, staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project.

"Rather than deny (them) the ability to drive - an everyday necessity for most people - our leaders should come together to enact long-term solutions that would allow our talented immigrant youth to achieve the American dream," she added.

'DUTY TO DEFEND STATE LAW'

But Brewer maintained that the new Obama policy did not "confer upon them any lawful or authorized status and does not entitle them to any additional public benefits."

Her spokesman, Matthew Benson, said in a statement that the governor had a duty "to defend state law, which limits the disbursement of public benefits and Arizona driver's licenses to individuals who are lawfully present in the United States. Beneficiaries under the ... program are not."

He added that the legal limbo faced by program recipients was "not due to any action by the State of Arizona" but to Obama's "decision to pursue this program via executive action rather than through the proper legislative process."

Brewer signed a controversial bill cracking down on illegal immigrants into law in 2010, and its centerpiece was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. That provision requires police to check the immigration status of people they stop if they suspect they are in the country illegally.

After winning a second presidential term earlier this month, Obama pledged to make overhauling the country's immigration system a priority, including offering a pathway to citizenship for many of the nation's 11.2 million illegal immigrants.

The move has gained the support of some senior Republicans in the U.S. Congress.

(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Eric Beech)

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