In a couple of weeks, California finally will begin licensing undocumented immigrant drivers. Both morally and pragmatically, this is something to celebrate.
Life here without a driver’s license is almost impossible. From identification to employment to just getting the kids to soccer practice, everything here is harder without that little plastic card in your wallet. And it’s harder, too, for the rest of us, who, because of anti-undocumented immigrant political fervor, have too often ended up sharing the roads with undocumented motorists who have little training and no insurance.
In fact, the program that starts in 2015 is partly at the behest of law enforcement, which has long argued that bringing this reality of life in California out of the shadows will bring down rates of all sorts of public safety issues, from fake ID scams to hit-and-run accidents.
The new specialized license, available beginning Jan. 2, is sensible and humane. The trust issues and logistical challenges are immense, though. We need to get this program right.
Demand is intense. As many as 1.4 million undocumented immigrants are expected to apply, and driver’s license appointments have more than doubled over this same period last year. The Department of Motor Vehicles is opening four new field offices and hiring nearly 1,000 new employees.
Trust, though, is shaky. Despite a companion law ensuring the DMV won’t share sensitive data with other agencies, many undocumented people are understandably afraid to give the government their information. And living without papers can give even the hardworking and respectful a less than squeaky-clean record.
Immigrant advocates say that one of the biggest concerns is what will happen to people who resorted to fake IDs in years past. Will their old information remain in the system? Could that give them trouble with authorities now or later?
Questions abound, too, about how the DMV will substantiate the identities of people whose paperwork is incomplete or problematic, and whether those who are turned away will have a workable appeals process.
Literacy, too, is a problem. Similar programs in other states have shown that failure rates on the licensing exam’s written portion are much higher for immigrant drivers than for the general population, partly because of poor translation and partly because many arrive here with less education.
Much as some of us may want to resist this, for this program to deliver the safety the public wants from it, applicants are going to need some hand-holding and reassurance. Already con artists are exploiting their fears with offers, for a fee, to complete DMV applications, shortcut the process with DMV “connections” or guarantee a passing grade with expensive “test prep.”
Attorney General Kamala Harris has issued consumer alerts that are being carried on Spanish-language media, warning of scammers. And immigrant rights groups such as the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles are offering true test prep, for free, up and down the state.
More support and communication are needed. Regardless of your position on illegal immigration, this program – done right – could go a long way toward making our roads safer and our lives easier in 2015.