Beginning Jan. 1, immigrants who are here illegally will be able to take another small step out of the shadows by applying for California driver's licenses. It took years to enact this controversial policy, but ultimately granting licenses to qualified drivers, regardless of their legal status, is the right thing to do. Why? Because, as nine other states and the District of Columbia have figured out, ensuring public safety on the roadways is more important than punishing people for being in the country illegally.
As spelled out in AB 60, which was passed by the state Legislature and signed into law last year, applicants will have to clear reasonable hurdles. They must provide proof of identity (the accepted credentials, such as passports and birth certificates, vary by native country) and proof of California residency. They must then meet the same criteria as everyone else: Pass a written exam on the rules of the road, a vision test and a road test. At the insistence of the Department of Homeland Security, each license will note that it is “not acceptable for federal purposes” and “does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration, or public benefits.” Nor can the licenses be used to clear security checks at airports.
Allowing such immigrants to drive legally acknowledges the reality that they make up a large slice of modern America: at least 3 million here in California and more than 11 million nationwide, according to the Migration Policy Institute. They work. They take their kids to school. They shop and run errands and so, yes, they drive (some insurance companies already offer policies to immigrant drivers who lack licenses). Given that reality, it is better for society to make certain that all drivers are trained and licensed, and that they understand the rules of the road and basic driver safety.
Clear statistics are unavailable on how many people have obtained licenses in the states that already issue them to those who are here illegally.
In a troubling development, reports from Maryland suggest that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have used the state's license database to target potential deportees. ICE officials say they consulted the database only to track down people they were already seeking, but the National Immigration Law Center has asked a federal judge to order the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to disclose what exactly its policies are.
The government should comply with that request, and should go one step further and renounce the practice of going on fishing expeditions in the license database, which erodes trust in the licensing system. At the same time, other states should begin making licenses available to immigrants who are here illegally and help make the roads in all states as safe as possible.
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