Gov. Jerry Brown signed a landmark law Thursday granting driver's licenses to people who are in the country illegally, hailing the measure as an important expansion of immigrant rights and one that should serve as an example to other states.
"This is only the first step. When a million people without their documents drive legally with respect to the state of California, the rest of this country will have to stand up and take notice," Brown said outside Los Angeles City Hall, with Archbishop Jose Gomez and other dignitaries in attendance. "No longer are undocumented people in the shadows."
The licenses will bear distinguishing marks: The legislation recommends DP for driving privilege, rather than DL for driver's license.
The new law will set off a scramble at the Department of Motor Vehicles, which may open up to six temporary offices to handle the estimated 1.4 million immigrants who are expected to apply in the next three years.
Proponents say that with more licensed drivers, hit-and-run accidents will decrease and the percentage of drivers who are insured will increase.
Ten other states have passed similar laws — seven of them this year — as comprehensive immigration reform remains stalled at the federal level. In the three states that already grant such licenses, the effect is being debated.
A study in New Mexico found that the rate of insured drivers has increased only slightly. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has advocated the repeal of the driver's license provision, arguing that out-of-state immigrants are flocking there and fraudulently obtaining licenses. Washington state has also seen multiple attempts to repeal its immigrant driver's licenses.
Immigrant rights advocates predict that most people who are driving without licenses will come forward and apply. In Utah, people were initially scared, but about 75% to 80% ended up applying, said Tony Yapias of Proyecto Latino de Utah.
"For the last eight years, it has worked well in Utah," Yapias said. "I tell the immigrant community in California to give it a chance. It will make things safe for everyone."
California DMV officials will begin developing eligibility guidelines and the licenses probably won't be issued until late 2014 or early 2015. The legislation suggests using documents such as a passport, lease agreement or birth certificate to establish identity.
State officials estimate that once guidelines are in place, processing the flood of applications will cost $140 million to $220 million in the first three years. The new applicants would collectively pay about $50 million under current fee structures, but the bill allows additional fees if necessary.
California is home to nearly one in four immigrants who live in the U.S. without legal status. The state can learn a lot about potential problems from New Mexico, which has issued more than 90,000 driver's licenses to foreign nationals since 2003, said Demesia Padilla, that state's secretary for taxation and revenue.
"It's been a disaster," Padilla said. "We have had a lot of identify fraud."
The state has broken up fraud rings that used false addresses and fraudulent lease and utility documents to obtain driver's licenses for immigrants who live in other states, she said.
One of the California bill's leading opponents, businessman Don Rosenberg of Westlake Village, said he is considering a possible legal challenge to the new law, which he called a "sham."
Rosenberg, whose 25-year-old son was killed in an accident with an unlicensed immigrant driver, testified at the Capitol in recent months against the legislation, criticizing it for not requiring any training or other measures to make sure the new drivers are safer.
Police chiefs and sheriffs across California have generally backed the measure because the licenses are clearly distinguishable from standard ones.
"With this bill, over 1 million drivers in California will be more likely to have been tested, to have insurance or to know the rules of the road and obey the laws of this state," Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said Thursday.
But in New Mexico, the law enforcement benefits touted by the licenses' proponents have not materialized, said Jim Burleson, executive director of the state's Sheriffs' and Police Assn. Burleson argues that immigrants should drive in the U.S. using driver's licenses from their home countries.
"Go get the license from where you come from," he said. "There's nothing value-added having a person … get a license from that state if they're not from there."
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Insurance Regulation suggested that in states that grant driver's licenses to such immigrants, the rate of uninsured motorists had increased by almost 2%, resulting in more fatal car crashes.
In Utah, a 2006 state audit report showed that about 75% of those with the immigrant "driving privilege cards" had obtained car insurance, compared with 81% of those with regular licenses.
Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo introduced a licensing bill every year during his two decades in the California Legislature. He said Thursday that the legislation was prompted by the seizure of unlicensed immigrants' cars.
For Araceli Sanchez of West Los Angeles, a driver's license would allow her to get to her housecleaning and painting jobs without fear that her car will be impounded or that she will be deported.
"Driving without a license is a lot of fear," said Sanchez, 49, who came to the U.S. illegally from Oaxaca, Mexico, more than two decades ago. "Every day when we go to our work or take our kids to school, we feel a menace following us."
Angel Barrera said that all the immigrants in his Van Nuys apartment building are studying for the driver's license test using a Spanish-language smartphone app.
"You don't know what a difference this will make," Barrera said. "We will be able to go everywhere we want now."
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