Capitol Alert

Feds give green light to California immigrant licenses

Removing a stop sign for immigrants who live in California illegally but hope to become legal drivers, federal officials have signed off on the design of licenses for foreign-born residents.

Immigrant advocates achieved a landmark goal in 2013 by winning Gov. Jerry Brown’s approval of a measure allowing undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses. But the federal government dealt the effort a setback earlier this year, rejecting California’s design because it was not distinctive enough. That raised questions about making the licenses available for the Jan. 1, 2015, date required by law.

Now the Department of Homeland Security has given its blessing, allowing California to proceed.

“DHS commends California’s efforts to improve the security of its licenses and identification cards and looks forward to continuing to work with you on this matter,” a Sept. 17 letter to California Department of Motor Vehicles director Jean Shiomoto reads.

Federal legislation passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks strengthened rules for government-sanctioned identification. Because of that law, IDs available to immigrants who cannot prove legal residence – the population that would be served by the forthcoming California licenses – must carry markings stating clearly that they don’t meet the higher standards.

California officials have sought to comply with those rules while also mollifying immigrant advocates worried about discrimination. The initial proposal suggested having the letters DP, for “driving privilege,” in the space where conventional licenses bear the letters “DL,” and carrying a statement on the back that the immigrant licenses cannot be used for federal purposes.

That idea didn’t get past federal officials. The new proposal would have the phrase “FEDERAL LIMITS APPLY” written on the front.

While the license bill’s author said the new design is more conspicuous than what he’d initially hoped for, he argued it is still preferable to immigrant driving permits in states like Illinois, where the cards carry a distinctive purple band.

“We tried to have much more subtle changes, but that was not acceptable to the Department of Homeland Security,” said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville. “We got the best compromise under the situation.”

Even with the initial federal rejection hanging over the process, California has been preparing to offer the new licenses. This year’s budget allocated $67 million to train new DMV staff and open new field offices, preparing to handle a surge of new applicants that officials estimate costing $141 million over the next three years before a $33-per-license fee starts generating enough revenue to cover the new program.

The agency has also been holding informational workshops around the state. In a Twitter message posted on Friday, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, urged her constituents to ready themselves.

“Asking those who qualify for a driver’s license under AB60 to trust us,” the message said. “Set some time to study, turn off that novela & prep for your test.”