PHOENIX A U.S. federal judge refused on Thursday to block Arizona's Republican governor, who has long clashed with Washington over immigration reform, from denying driver's licenses to young immigrants granted temporary legal status by the federal government.
Civil rights groups had filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Phoenix in November against Governor Jan Brewer and two state transportation department officials on behalf of five Mexican immigrants who qualify for deferred deportation status under a program pushed by President Barack Obama.
The suit challenged the legality of an order issued by Brewer in August that denied the young migrants licenses, arguing that the federal deferred action program did not give them lawful status or entitle them to public benefits.
Judge David Campbell ruled that while the young immigrants appeared likely to prevail in their argument on constitutional equal-protection grounds, they had not proved they would suffer irreparable injury as the case proceeds.
"The court concludes that plaintiffs have not shown a likelihood of success on the merits of their Supremacy Clause claim," Campbell noted in a written ruling denying the motion for a preliminary injunction.
"Plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits of their equal-protection claim, but the Court finds that they have not shown a likelihood of irreparable injury and have not otherwise met the high burden for a mandatory injunction," he added.
The ruling came as a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives declared on Thursday they had reached a tentative deal for passage of a major bill to revamp the nation's immigration policy.
The final sticking point in Washington, according to congressional sources, was over whether illegal immigrants now in the United States who gain legal status under the bill could participate in the new healthcare law known as "Obamacare," which Republicans want to repeal.
While the judge in the Arizona driver's license case said the immigrants' equal-protection claim was likely to succeed, he also tossed a separate argument that the Arizona policy was pre-empted by federal law in a move Brewer described as a victory.
"This portion of the ruling is not only a victory for the State of Arizona, it is a victory for states' rights, the rule of law and the bedrock principles that guide our nation's legislative process and the division of power between the federal government and states," Brewer said in a statement.
An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union had argued for the plaintiffs at a hearing before Campbell in March. A call to the ACLU seeking comment was not immediately returned on Thursday.
Under Obama's program, 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. They also can obtain Social Security numbers.
An estimated 1.7 million youths are potentially eligible for the program, of whom about 80,000 live in Arizona. As of mid-February, about 200,000 applicants nationwide had been granted deferred action, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Those immigrants are considered to be lawfully present in the United States during that period.
About 40 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have confirmed they were granting driver's licenses - or planned to do so - for youths who received a short-term deportation reprieve under the program in June.
While Republicans in some states have opposed drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, only Arizona and Nebraska said outright that young immigrants were not eligible.
Brewer maintains that the policy did not "confer upon them any lawful or authorized status and does not entitle them to any additional public benefits."
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara)