California’s huge blow against stupidity about immigrant driver’s licenses

Undocumented immigrants line up at the DMV office in Stanton, Calif., to register for driver's licenses on Friday. The line started forming at 2 a.m.
(Nick Ut / Associated Press)

It took more than a year to get the ball rolling, but California just struck one of the most important blows against brainless public policymaking in years: The state on Friday started issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

As my colleagues Brittny Mejia and Cindy Carcamo report, at some DMV offices lines wound around the block. That’s a testament to the desire of many of these immigrants to get right with the law and to come out of the shadows where they’ve been relegated by decades of anti-immigrant stupidity.

A quick review of history is in order. It’s a sad chronicle. As I reported in 2013, for years California had allowed residents to apply for licenses even if they couldn’t prove their legal status. That ended in 1993, when the Legislature mandated that applicants prove they were in the country legally. That era marked a low point for the state’s treatment of immigrants -- it was the period when the state was overcome by a fit of immigrant-bashing, led by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, that also yielded the infamous Proposition 187.

Gov. Gray Davis signed a law reversing the rule in 2003, when he was fighting for his political life and needed Latino support to beat the recall campaign. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that paragon of political cynicism, pledged to reverse Davis’ action if he was elected and promptly got the Legislature to do so upon taking office.


Why bar immigrants from applying for licenses? It was said that terrorists could use licenses to sneak around the country, causing mayhem. It was also said that these people are in the country illegally -- why give them the privilege of driving?

California’s law deals with the first objection by requiring close scrutiny of the proofs of identity that applicants will be able to use as alternatives to Social Security numbers. (That’s why the DMV needed more than a year after Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law in October 2013 to start issuing applications.)

The second concern was always nonsensical. Licenses aren’t just handed over; the applicants have to pass the same driving tests as anyone else. Nor are licenses a privilege -- they’re a necessity and a testament that their holders have met reasonable driving and safety standards. Who was harmed by keeping undocumented immigrants out of this system? Ordinary citizens, for whom the roads were made unsafe and insurance bills driven higher by unlicensed and uninsured drivers. The expectation is that the market for insurance among the newly licensed drivers will soar.

Sadly, California wasn’t a pioneer in restoring licensure for these residents, though it’s the biggest -- 10 other states have already done so, including Utah, New Mexico and Washington, and their experience has generally been positive. And the California law implemented Friday still betrays the legacy of counterproductive immigrant-bashing. Each license issued under its provisions will bear a legend stating that it is “not acceptable for official federal purposes,” such as boarding an airplane.

How does that make sense? The purpose of showing ID at the airport gate is to verify that the passenger is who he or she claims to be; California’s immigrants will have to submit documents and a thumbprint verifying their identities and proving they reside in California (in addition to passing the vision, written and road tests required of all other residents). If anything, their verification is more valid than that of ordinary travelers, not less. Their licenses should be welcomed by the TSA, not shunned.

Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo, who fought to restore licensing rights for undocumented immigrants for years while serving in the state Assembly, put the issue in perspective in 2012. “For 60 years, California had the safest highways in the country,” he told me. “Then we started playing immigration politics with highway safety, and our highways got a lot less safe.”

Keep up to date with the Economy Hub. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see our Facebook page, or email