California immigrant driver’s licenses bring many questions

Published: Tuesday, Sep. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 24, 2013 - 6:25 am

The ride Isabel Medina was waiting for never arrived.

She and her husband, Felipe, both live in the United States illegally – they came from Mexico in 1996 – and one night eight years ago Isabel was in the hospital, waiting for Felipe to pick her up. He didn’t show. She eventually made her way home to find that Felipe had been pulled over for a traffic violation. The car was impounded, the couple had to pay $1,500, and they never got the car back.

However painful, the incident has not prevented them from once more taking to the roads.

“After that, even though we are scared to drive without a driver’s license, we still drive because it is a necessity,” said Medina, who lives in East Los Angeles. “We have to drive to get to school and work.”

Soon, they could do so legally. After a decade of failed attempts, California appears poised to join the small but growing number of states that offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Assuming Gov. Jerry Brown signs legislation on his desk, as he has said he would, California will move down a regulatory road to determine what, exactly, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants look like. It is a question that fueled skepticism around the legislation, Assembly Bill 60, compelling the bill’s author to briefly pull the measure as the 2013 session dwindled to its final hours.

Central to those concerns was how blatantly the licenses would identify their carriers as being here illegally. Stringent new federal requirements, adopted in 2005 in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, require applicants for government-issued IDs to submit information, like a Social Security number and evidence of lawful status, that undocumented immigrants by definition lack.

So the immigrant licenses must bear markings distinguishing it from full licenses and a disclaimer that the card cannot be used for federal purposes – a troubling proposition to critics. By allowing immigrants to drive legally, skeptics asked, are we opening them to exposure and, potentially, deportation?

“It really sort of put a target on immigrants because if the entire discretion for what the marks were was to be left up to the DMV at the behest of the administration, and you had an anti-immigrant Pete Wilson type in office, there’s nothing to prevent them from putting a big red ‘immigrant’ across the license,” said Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation.

Ultimately, Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, managed to allay those concerns with amendments prohibiting discrimination and suggesting what the licenses might look like – they would be “very discreet,” Alejo said. The opposed groups dropped their resistance.

“The concerns that I heard were the activist leaders who were concerned this is some kind of labeling of a class of folks, some imprint,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who voted for the bill. “I got those calls,” she added, “but it was the calls from people who have desperately wanted a license for the last 17 years that weighed heavier.”

Asked about the new licenses potentially flagging her as undocumented, Medina sounded unfazed. She hopes Brown will sign a separate bill, known informally as the Trust Act, designed to limit deportations stemming from minor violations like traffic infractions. She also has been volunteering with an immigrant rights organization, the Coalition of Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, and has acquired a new perspective.

“What I really think is that it’s not time to be afraid,” Medina said. “If you know your rights,” she added, “you will be safe and have your family together here in the United States.”

Next steps

The Legislature has concluded its work; once Brown signs the bill, the agencies take over.

First, the Department of Motor Vehicles would collect input on what the licenses would look like and come up with a prototype. They would then submit the design to the federal Department of Homeland Security to ensure the licenses comply with federal rules.

Proponents of the bill project confidence that, in its final form, the legislation bars the DMV from crafting the type of scarlet-letter licenses immigrant advocates fear.

The cards would need to bear language stipulating that they can’t be used for federal purposes, to seek employment, to obtain public assistance or to register to vote. The bill also says the card’s front must display a “recognizable feature” and suggests something subtle, such as the letters “DP” (for “driving privilege”) rather than “DL” preceding the license number.

Marva Diaz, a spokeswoman for Alejo, acknowledged that the bill’s provisions about how the licenses will look are “really just guidelines,” with the ultimate authority resting with the DMV. But Alejo said he is confident about the final project given the time his office office had put in working with the DMV.

“Unless they totally do the opposite of the commitment I got from them, it’s going to comply with the intent of what we put into the bill,” Alejo said.

The agency also must determine the documents applicants can use to prove California residency. The bill lists utility bills and leases as possible pieces of evidence.

Then there is the question of logistics – in particular, whether the California Department of Motor Vehicles is equipped to handle a surge in new applications. An analysis of the legislation by the Senate Appropriations Committee estimated that some 1.4 million immigrants could put in for the new licenses, at a cost of $140 million to $220 million over three years.

Brown’s office declined to discuss specifics, saying to do so would be premature.

In the final analysis, the bill drew few official detractors. While most Republicans voted against it, the California State Sheriffs’ Association took no formal position and the California Police Chiefs Association lent its support.

Brown, who had rejected the idea while running for governor in 2010, pivoted to a support position after criticizing the lack of action on immigration reform in Congress. That reflected other states taking matters into their own hands: When Colorado passed a similar law earlier this year, Democratic governor John Hickenlooper also said a federal lag motivated his signature.

To proponents, that reflects the common-sense, public safety-oriented logic that brought both law enforcement and the insurance industry on board: Undocumented immigrants are already driving, particularly farm workers who live in rural areas where public transportation is effectively nonexistent, so it makes sense to bring them into a formal system.

“It’s axiomatic that highway safety is enhanced if everybody is licensed, they have to pass a driving proficiency test and they’re insured,” said John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association.

Trouble in other states

On the subject of law and order, New Mexico Republicans have a different set of concerns.

One of several Western states with a booming Latino population, New Mexico has offered licenses to undocumented immigrants since 2003. The state acted before federal restrictions took effect, and issues full licenses rather than immigrant-specific cards of the kind California has approved.

Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, has fought vigorously for a repeal and campaigned on a vow to eliminate the law, saying the measure encourages non-residents to travel to New Mexico in search of licenses.

Demesia Padilla, secretary of the state’s Taxation and Revenue Department, said fraud rings offering to sell counterfeit documents have flourished, overburdening the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division and straining the state’s capacity for fraud enforcement.

“What we have seen is just a criminal element that has arose around this law,” Padilla said.

Washington faced a similar issue. The state has never distinguished legal residents from immigrants in giving out driver’s licenses and passed a bill barring the use of state funds to comply with the federal identification law.

In recent years, officials at the state’s Department of Licensing noticed an influx of out-of-state immigrants trying to secure licenses, in some cases with the aid of “handlers” who accepted payment to help people present themselves as Washington residents. In response, the Department of Licensing tightened its rules around proving residency.

The DMV’s authority to craft new regulations around the application process, coupled with the possibility of follow-up legislation, should safeguard against the law being exploited, Alejo said. He added that his office researched the experience of other states when drafting the California bill and incorporated what they learned.

“I think what we passed,” Alejo said, “is the best bill out of all of those that have been enacted across the country.”


Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

Read more articles by Jeremy B. White



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