California is on the verge of allowing hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to receive driver's licenses for the first time in nearly two decades.
The key question is how to do it.
The issue of granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants has raged in the Legislature for much of the past decade, without resolution, but fighting is largely moot now due to a new federal policy.
President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals gives a select group of undocumented immigrants the right to live and work in the United States for two years without fear of deportation.
California is laying the groundwork for extending the privilege to driving, too, for an estimated 400,000 immigrants.
"It appears that young people who receive federal deferrals will be eligible for California driver's licenses," the Department of Motor Vehicles said in a written statement Tuesday.
"But it remains uncertain whether clarifying legislation or regulations will be necessary," the DMV statement said.
Gil Duran, spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown, said the DMV statement reflects the governor's position but that he could not elaborate.
The glitch is that state regulations allow only certain types of federal immigration documents to support the issuance of a driver's license.
If President Obama's Deferred Action program provides participants with "new or different immigration documents," then legislation or regulatory clarification may be needed, the DMV said.
Unless Brown takes a stand against issuing driver's licenses, passage of such legislation appears a sure thing in a Democratic-controlled Legislature that has consistently supported driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants in years past.
The governor, on the campaign trail, had spoken against changing state law to allow all undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.
Deferred Action applies to undocumented immigrants between the ages of 15 and 31, who came to America before the age of 16 and and have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat. Participants also must be either high school students, graduates, or honorably discharged from the military who have lived in the United States continuously for five years.
Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, a Los Angeles Democrat who has pushed for such driver's licenses for more than a decade, said he stands ready to propose whatever legislation is necessary.
Cedillo said he has nudged state officials for weeks to lift its nearly 20-year ban in response to the Deferred Action program.
Allowing every California resident to obtain driver's licenses enhances public safety because nobody would be forced into the shadows, driving illegally, often without insurance, he said.
"It's important to all Californians that we have motorists who are licensed, tested and insured," Cedillo said.
Besides, it makes no sense to deny a driver's license to undocumented immigrants in Deferred Action who have a legal right to work, attend college and travel in the United States, he said.
"These are people who are going to be contributing to our economy by seeking work, or pursuing educational goals," said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville.
Cedillo said that granting driver's license rights to a select group now could pave the way for expanding such opportunities for more undocumented immigrants in years to come.
Republican lawmakers turned thumbs down Wednesday on giving such a public benefit to anyone who entered the country illegally, whether they did so as children or not.
"If they're not here legally, they shouldn't get driver's licenses under any circumstances," said Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Marysville.
Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said he is convinced that most Californians do not support issuing driver's licenses to Deferred Action participants.
"There will be a very profound negative reaction, including from me," he said.
Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, dismissed the claim that granting driver's licenses to Deferred Action participants would enhance road safety statewide.
In a state of about 38 million residents, Jones said, the "number of people who would actually qualify for this program, under its current rules, is minuscule."
Though California's DMV points to the federal Deferred Action program as rationale for lifting its current ban on such licenses, Arizona has demonstrated that states' hands are not tied in the matter.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed an executive order this month directing state agencies not to issue driver's licenses or other public benefits to Deferred Action participants.
Editor's Note: The story has been updated from print and online versions to clarify the eligibility rules for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Updated 12:58 p.m., Aug. 29, 2012.