Him, unlicensed; me, unlucky

I pulled my car over and stepped out into the night. The trunk and bumper were crushed and torn, but the car was drivable and there were no injuries. The driver who rear-ended me was a pleasant young man whose pickup had suffered less damage. I asked for his license and insurance documents. He offered a card showing that the truck was owned and insured by his brother. Thanks, but can I also see your license? I don’t have a license, he replied. Instead, he handed me his matricula consular, identification issued by the Mexican consulate.

A CHP officer arrived and took a report. Jorge, an illegal immigrant, had several previous citations for driving without a license, the officer told me. He would impound the truck and take Jorge to the station, since he couldn’t be left on this rural road in Laguna Canyon. The insurance looked valid, the officer said, but it was a fly-by-night company; there might be trouble collecting from it.

It’s a common Southern California story — collisions with drivers who have no license because their illegal immigration status prohibits them from receiving one. This wasn’t the case until 1994. Before then, the state had its own “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Applicants for a license had to be insured, but they weren’t required to offer proof of legal residency.

The new get-tough-on-immigrants law didn’t result in people returning to their native countries. Rather, it led to a boom in the number of unlicensed drivers. For the past several years, legislation has been offered to allow licenses for illegal immigrants, and each year, the legislation has been vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — even when it called for licenses to be clearly labeled with the driver’s immigration status.

I’m not exactly sorry that Jorge got into so much trouble. He deserves to face the consequences of his actions, which included breaking the law every time he drove. Yet the truck was insured. He pulled over and explained the situation honestly instead of driving off. He was trying to do the right thing, except for the right thing he couldn’t do — get a license. That would require learning how to drive properly and passing a test. His history also makes it harder for his brother to buy insurance from a more reputable company. How is this protecting everyone else on the road?


Jerry Brown, our newly elected governor, has said he opposes allowing illegal immigrants to obtain licenses because it is part of a “piecemeal” approach to federal immigration reform. Piecemeal or no, it’s the state’s job — his new job — to make the roads safer. That would happen if all drivers were properly trained and licensed.

-- Karin Klein