Potential pitfalls as California hails new licenses for immigrants

As immigrant rights advocates in California celebrated a landmark law Thursday granting driver’s licenses to people who are in the country illegally, other states with similar provisions offered a glimpse of potential pitfalls, including rampant identity fraud and little improvement to public safety.

The new law – heralded by hundreds of proponents, including Gov. Jerry Brown and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti outside City Hall on Thursday -- will set off a scramble at the Department of Motor Vehicles, which may open up to six temporary offices to handle the estimated 1.4 million immigrants who are expected to apply in the next three years.

The licenses will bear distinguishing marks: The legislation recommends DP for driving privilege, rather than DL for driver’s license.

Proponents say that with more licensed drivers, hit-and-run accidents will decrease and the percentage of drivers who are insured will increase.

Ten other states have passed similar laws, but in three of those states, the effect is being debated.


Republican New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has advocated the repeal of the driver’s license provision, arguing that out-of-state immigrants are flocking there and fraudulently obtaining licenses. Washington state has also seen multiple attempts to repeal its immigrant driver’s licenses.

California is home to nearly one in four immigrants who live in the U.S. without legal status. The state can learn a lot about potential problems from New Mexico, which has issued more than 90,000 driver’s licenses to foreign nationals since 2003, said Demesia Padilla, that state’s secretary for taxation and revenue.

“It’s been a disaster,” Padilla said. “We have had a lot of identity fraud.”

The state has broken up fraud rings that used false addresses and fraudulent lease and utility documents to obtain driver’s licenses for immigrants who live in other states, she said.

Police chiefs and sheriffs across California have generally backed the measure because the licenses are clearly distinguishable from standard ones.

“With this bill, over 1 million drivers in California will be more likely to have been tested, to have insurance or to know the rules of the road and obey the laws of this state,” Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said Thursday.

But in New Mexico, the law enforcement benefits touted by the licenses’ proponents have not materialized, said Jim Burleson, executive director of the state’s Sheriffs’ and Police Assn. Burleson argues that immigrants should drive in the U.S. using driver’s licenses from their home countries.

“Go get the license from where you come from,” he said. “There’s nothing value-added having a person … get a license from that state if they’re not from there.”

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Insurance Regulation suggested that in states that grant driver’s licenses to such immigrants, the rate of uninsured motorists had increased by almost 2%, resulting in more fatal car crashes.

In Utah, a 2006 state audit report showed that about 75% of those with the immigrant “driving privilege cards” had obtained car insurance, compared with 81% of those with regular licenses.

Immigrant rights advocates predict that most people who are driving without licenses will come forward and apply. In Utah, people were initially scared, but about 75% to 80% ended up applying, said Tony Yapias of Proyecto Latino de Utah.

“For the last eight years, it has worked well in Utah,” Yapias said. “I tell the immigrant community in California to give it a chance. It will make things safe for everyone.”

Outside Los Angeles City Hall on Thursday, Brown also framed the new law as a way to recognize an important segment of the state’s population and culture.

“This is only the first step. When a million people without their documents drive legally with respect to the state of California, the rest of this country will have to stand up and take notice,” Brown said. “No longer are undocumented people in the shadows.”


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