Leticia Aceves remembers the fear of that first drive alone.
She was pregnant and in the country illegally with no driver’s license, and little grasp of English or California’s traffic laws. She had a doctor’s appointment, so she drove her Volkswagen on side streets and avoided Highway 49 — the town’s main road hoping it would lessen her chances of being pulled over by police.
“I was shaking all the way from my house to the doctor’s appointment,” said Aceves, 52.
Two years ago, driving got less stressful for Aceves and 850,000 other Californians who received driver’s licenses through a landmark state law meant to help immigrants living in the country illegally become more integrated into society.
Over the last decade, California has taken several steps to bring immigrants without legal status into the mainstream, including healthcare for the young and financial aid for college students.
But none of them has changed lives so profoundly and quickly as the driver’s licenses. Being able to drive without fear of arrests has given them access to more jobs and made them more confident drivers, they say. Aceves now drives as many as 50 miles a day for her burgeoning house-cleaning business.
But President Trump’s crackdown on immigration has spawned anxiety among those license-holders, many of whom worry that the cards will be used to identify them as being here illegally and lead to their deportations. That has prompted some to avoid getting the licenses, despite assurances from the Department of Motor Vehicles that it will not share information with immigration officials.
The decision to give driver’s licenses to immigrants here illegally was hotly debated, and it took more than a decade to get the law passed. Critics continue to argue that it has legitimized illegal immigration, and it remains unclear whether it will face new challenges by the Trump administration.
The licenses are designed for people who cannot show proof of legal resident status in the United States, but their use is limited to driving. They can’t be used to board airplanes or cross an international border.
Still, the licenses have been life-altering for tens of thousands of Californians. Manuel Mesa remembers well the anxiety that came with driving illegally. He and his family always worried about being pulled over by police, which happened a few times.
“One time they put my wife in the back of a patrol car, they made me take off my shoes, handcuffed me and searched my car,” he said. He was eventually let go without arrest, he added.
When Mesa got a driver’s license in 2015, he became more inclined to challenge police if he felt his rights were being violated. He also said learning traffic laws in preparation for the exam made him more confident behind the wheel.
I want to get a driver’s license because it’s important to have. ... But I’m afraid to go to the DMV because I might get snatched up.
“In my mind, it was a very important document,” he said, not least because it gave him some “breathing space” when dealing with police.
More important, the license helped him get a better job. Mesa applied for a commercial driver’s license and now works as a big-rig driver, hauling wood, computers, foods and other products.
Dolores Garcia, 27, entered the U.S. illegally eight years ago. She got a job and an apartment but had to take the bus to and from work every day.
That changed when she got her license two years ago. Emboldened, she decided to buy a car and relished not having to worry.
But Trump’s election has renewed some of those fears. Despite reassurance from state officials, Garcia said she worries Immigration officials might have access to DMV files and that could make her more vulnerable to deportation.
Two months ago, she heard rumors that ICE agents were going to the homes of people who had received driver’s licenses. She said now her boyfriend is afraid to apply for a license.
Jessica Gonzalez, a DMV spokeswoman, said that although the department makes “databases available to law enforcement entities,” that information would not include the legal status of license holders.
She added that state laws forbid cops from discriminating based on a person showing an AB-60 license. ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said investigators could use information from the DMV in the course of criminal investigations, but that “ICE does not use data from the DMV to identify immigration enforcement targets.”
Earlier this month, though, the American Civil Liberties Union released documents that it contends show that Vermont’s Department of Motor Vehicles coordinated with ICE last year.
The record included emails between ICE and the Vermont DMV in which immigration agents asked that the legal status of certain drivers be checked, said James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.
Vermont is one of 12 states and the District of Columbia that have some way for unauthorized immigrants to obtain a driver’s license.
The Trust Act in California offers a measure of protection, said Daniel Sharp, the legal director at the Central American Resource Center — a community organization that helps immigrants get licenses among other programs. That law makes it harder for state and local law enforcement officials to hold immigrants who have committed minor crimes for pickup by ICE agents. In this climate of fear, Sharp said, it’s unlikely that immigrants who have waited this long will apply for a license.
Selling strawberries outside his brown van in MacArthur Park, 64-year-old Carlos, who declined to give his last name because he feared being deported, said it’s too risky to apply for a license.
“I want to get a driver’s license because it’s important to have,” Carlos said. “I would just feel a lot more safer. But I’m afraid to go to the DMV because I might get snatched up.”
Proponents of the law argue that licensing immigrants in the U.S. illegally has made roads safer, because those with licenses have to pass a driving test and an eye exam. A recent study by Stanford researchers showed that hit-and-run cases were increasing at a slower rate because licensed drivers are less likely to flee the scene of a crime.
But critics such as Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation say issuing the licenses to such immigrants legitimizes their presence in the country and makes it “easier for them to stay in the country.”
Even though this license looks different and has specific limitations, Von Spakovsky said, it “makes it easier for them to use this government-issued ID for many illegal purposes, such as applying for government benefits or registering to vote.”
Before she got her license, Aceves said driving was always tinged with anxiety about being stopped by police. This became an even bigger issue as her house-cleaning business grew and she’d have to drive up to 50 miles a day.
In 2013, Aceves lobbied hard for the passage of the driver’s license bill, calling lawmakers and making her case in the halls of power. When it became law, she was ecstatic. She helped organize a weekly study group so prospective drivers could take practice tests and ask questions.
On a recent Saturday, Aceves and her husband were in Sacramento visiting their 25-year-old daughter Sahmed, who is getting married in the fall and needed to find a wedding dress.
Before her mom had a license, Sahmed said, she would never have driven to Sacramento alone.
“I found my dress, and then the bridesmaids got their dresses,” Sahmed said. “It was a perfect day.”