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North Carolina drops "scarlet letter" driver's license for immigrants

By Colleen Jenkins

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina on Thursday revealed a new look for driver's licenses it will issue to some young undocumented immigrants starting next week, after criticism that the previous design amounted to a "scarlet letter" that could invite discrimination.

Immigrants and their advocates had complained about the first design, which featured a pink stripe at the top of the licenses and the words "No Lawful Status" and "Limited Term" in red.

The altered licenses have the same color scheme as standard licenses, which use a blue bar.

However, the licenses for the young immigrants will include the phrases "Limited Term" and "Legal Presence/No Lawful Status" in red.

State law requires a temporary license to have a distinguishing mark, said Mike Charbonneau, a spokesman for the state transportation department.

"We wanted to follow the letter of the law in the most efficient way possible," he said.

Asked if the changes were made as a result of criticism, Charbonneau said, "This was about ease of implementation."

A staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina called the new look "a huge step in the right direction," but said concerns remained.

"We still question the necessity of including distinguishing language such as ‘no lawful status' on the licenses and will be watching closely to see how these changes are implemented," attorney Raul Pinto said in a statement.

About 40 states and the District of Columbia have said they are granting driver's licenses or plan to do so for undocumented youths who receive short-term reprieve from deportation under a program announced last June by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Republicans in some states have opposed licenses for illegal immigrants. Arizona and Nebraska have said outright that young immigrants are ineligible.

Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and meet other criteria can apply for a work permit for a renewable period of two years. They also can obtain Social Security numbers.

As of mid-March, 245,493 of the estimated 1.7 million people who are 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 recipients of deferred action.

But after the state attorney general's office said North Carolina was legally obligated to issue the licenses, officials said they would begin doing so starting on Monday.

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Daniel Trotta)

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