By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court ruled on Monday that Arizona cannot deny driver's licenses to some undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court ruling in a challenge to an Arizona policy covering those who benefited from a federal program that let certain immigrants stay in the country.

Recipients of the program, known as "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" or DACA, were prohibited in Arizona from using employment documents to prove they were in the United States legally and obtain driver's licenses.

The three-judge appellate panel said in its ruling that "it could identify no legitimate state interest that was rationally related to defendants' decision to treat DACA recipients disparately from other noncitizens."

After the DACA program took effect in August 2012, it was described by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer as an "Obama amnesty plan." In an executive order, her office directed state agencies to prevent recipients from becoming eligible for any state identification, including driver's licenses.

Brewer said she was analyzing options for appealing the "misguided" decision.

"It is outrageous, though not entirely surprising, that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has once again dealt a blow to Arizona's ability to enforce its laws," the Republican governor said in a statement.

Brewer said DACA was founded on a lawless directive by President Barack Obama and that it led directly to the influx of immigrants straining customs and border enforcement agencies in Southwestern U.S. states.


The challenge to the policy was brought by immigrant rights activists and five DACA beneficiaries living in the state who were denied licenses.

The 9th Circuit noted that more than 87 percent of Arizonans commuted to work by car.

"The link between driver's licenses and the ability to work is heightened by the fact that some jobs - including jobs for which two plaintiffs wished to apply - require driver's licenses as a condition of hire," the court said.

It said the state's policy appeared intended in part to express animus toward the recipients of the program, "in part because of the federal government's policy toward them."

Karen Tumlin of the National Immigration Law Center, which helped challenge the policy, said tens of thousands of immigrant youngsters in Arizona were being irreparably harmed.

"We hope the state will take this ruling as an opportunity to abandon its quixotic anti-immigrant quest," she said.

To be eligible for DACA, immigrants must have come to the United States before the age of 16 and have been under 31 as of June 15, 2012.

Among other requirements, recipients must be enrolled in school, or have graduated from high school or obtained a high school equivalency diploma, and have no serious criminal offenses on their record.

A report by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services showed 22,756 people living in Arizona had applied for DACA since the end of March, and 19,900 had been accepted.

(Additional reporting and writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Peter Cooney)