Editorials

Uncomfortable reality of licensing undocumented immigrants

Gov. Jerry Brown congratulates Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, in 2013 after signing his Assembly Bill 60 that requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Gov. Jerry Brown congratulates Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, in 2013 after signing his Assembly Bill 60 that requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Sacramento Bee file

Assemblyman Luis Alejo was understandably excited that 500,000-plus undocumented immigrants received California driver’s licenses this year, thanks to his 2013 legislation.

In his exuberance, however, the Salinas-area Democrat got ahead of himself by proclaiming that because of his Assembly Bill 60, there no longer were uninsured motorists on this state’s roads.

The fact-checking watchdog PolitiFact California stepped in. Citing multiple facts, including California Highway Patrol statistics showing that chippies had issued 66,000 citations for driving without insurance in the first eight months of 2015, the organization issued a report that rightly chastised Alejo.

“This statement is clearly a dream, with no basis in fact,” the organization concluded, in collaboration with Capital Public Radio.

We all make mistakes, and Alejo was contrite. But his embarrassment aside, the episode makes clear the large amount of work left undone for a well-intentioned legislator who is seeking to leave a mark.

Alejo’s legislation was fundamental to the attempt by California Democrats including Gov. Jerry Brown to prove that this state could act rationally on immigration while the Republican-controlled Congress remained paralyzed. But the press releases having been issued and the political points scored, California lawmakers now need to show they can implement smart policy.

The bill recognized reality: Millions of Californians have crossed into this nation illegally, and are driving to and from work. Better to license them and make sure they know the rules of the road.

One rule is that all vehicles must be insured. AB 60 acknowledges this by including in its findings a statement that more motorists would buy car insurance if undocumented immigrants were licensed. In reality, no one knows whether that’s happening. That needs to change.

As the state geared up in 2014 to issue the licenses in 2015, Brown signed a related measure, Senate Bill 1273, to expand the state program to provide subsidized insurance for low-income people.

Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, who sponsored the bill, cited the coming wave of newly licensed drivers, and told Brown in a letter that SB 1273 would be “the single most important action that can be taken to reduce the number of uninsured vehicles on our roadways.” Brown signed the bill into law.

Last week, Jones’ office acknowledged that a mere 875 motorists who have received licenses as a result of AB 60 have bought subsidized insurance, a paltry number given that the Department of Motor Vehicles estimates that 549,000 undocumented immigrants now are licensed.

Not all newly licensed immigrants would qualify for low-cost insurance. But clearly, the state needs to do a better job of spreading the word about the subsidized auto insurance to drivers who are licensed because of AB 60.

Lawmakers have been struggling for decades to find ways to make sure that motorists have insurance. But if anything, there is an even greater incentive now.

Alejo, Brown and Democrats sought to make a point to the nation by recognizing a fact of California life – that undocumented immigrants drive.

Righteous though the policy is, there must be follow-through. Otherwise, this will be just one more well-intentioned but half-baked attempt to do good.

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