Driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants stir debate

Bertha Diaz, Araceli Sanchez, Antonio Bernabe
Bertha Diaz, left, and Araceli Sanchez recount their daily struggles of driving without a California license during a news conference at Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, with CHIRLA senior organizer Antonio Bernabe, right, on Friday.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

California’s move to allow more than a million immigrants who are in this country illegally to receive driver’s licenses marks a significant but controversial advance in the long campaign to decriminalize their day-to-day lives.

The new bill comes after some of California’s top law enforcement officials, including Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, expressed strong support for the idea. They argued that immigrants should not fear cooperating with police or feel harassed simply because of their immigration status.

Activists have complained for years that undocumented immigrants stopped at drunk-driving checkpoints have their car impounded even if they are sober because they don’t have valid licenses. Police also say these immigrants tend not to have auto insurance, resulting in more hit-and-run accidents.

Kim Raney, president of California Police Chiefs Assn., said his organization only backed the plan after it was amended to add various security measures. His biggest concern was that the driver’s license could be used as identification for air travel, potentially causing problems with federal security agencies.


“These licenses will include a special watermark on the front and language on the back that makes it clear that this license is for driving only and not identification,” said Raney, who is also the chief of police in Covina. “TSA and federal officials and law enforcement will all be aware that these grant driving privileges only and aren’t confirmed identification.”

Raney said the plan should put an end to many of the headaches police departments deal with concerning unlicensed immigrant drivers.

“You either have a license or you don’t have a license. You have no reason not to be insured.” he added. “This should end the entire debate over impounds.”

But the larger debate about how immigration laws are enforced is far from over.


Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington said the new California law amounted to a “quasi-amnesty.”

“The whole point of immigration law is to make it impractical to stay here illegally,” he said. “This is doing the exact opposite. The point of this is to make it practical to live here illegally.... What it means is the government is formally incorporating illegal aliens into institutions of our society.”

Indeed, backing from law enforcement is far from universal. Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who has spoken against giving undocumented immigrants licenses in the past, said Friday that his position had not changed. “I just think that if someone is in the country illegally, for us to give them a legal ability to drive makes absolutely no sense,” he said. “That… really bothers me.”

Youngblood challenged the idea that giving undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses would eliminate insurance issues in hit-and-run or other collisions. A license was no guarantee the driver would carry insurance, he said.

“It’s not with our citizens,” he said. “So how could it be with people in the country illegally?”

Beck on Friday called the new law “a big step forward in making our roads safer.”

He has been an outspoken supporter of issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, arguing that doing so would reduce the number of hit and run accidents because undocumented immigrants would have less fear of being caught for driving and of not having insurance.

Over the last few years, Beck and the L.A. Police Commission have moved to ease rules for when police officers impound the cars of undocumented immigrants.


The move was opposed by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers. The union argued that the new policy violated state law by stripping officers’ discretion to impound cars. The union, along with Judicial Watch in Washington, sued the city to have the policy tossed out. In August, a judge ruled the LAPD policy was illegal but did not immediately strike it down, allowing it to remain in effect pending appeals.

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said that once the law is signed, the U.S. Justice Department will  review whether it undermines federal immigration laws.

The bill, A.B. 60, would authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue a driver’s license to a person who cannot prove that he or she is authorized under federal law to be in the country—as long as they meet all other qualifications for having a license. According to an examination of the fiscal effects of the law, it could generate about $50 million in revenue over three years, but also cost between $140 million to $220 million over the same period of time, with about 1.4 million new driver’s licenses being issued.

Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to announce that he would sign the bill, saying in a statement that it would “enable millions of people to get to work safely and legally.”

Tom Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal and Educational Defense Fund, said his group doesn’t like that undocumented immigrants would get a license that looks different than other drivers. But in the end, the organization backed the bill after the authors added language saying that government agencies could not use the special license to discriminate against holders.

In Maywood, an overwhelmingly Latino immigrant community south of downtown L.A., there was strong support for the plan. The city once had an aggressive policy of impounding cars of undocumented immigrants, sometimes as many as 90 a night.

The city ended the practice amid charges that the impounds were designed to make money for the Police Department and towing companies. “The issue was not having a license. These people knew how to drive,” said Maywood Councilman Felipe Aguirre.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said she was waiting to see the details of the new licenses but said the plan if applied right could help law enforcement.


 “The license will make clear that the individual is not here legally but is being given the privilege of driving,” she said. “They will effectively be special license holders.”


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Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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