Immigrants can soon get driver’s licenses, but it’s been a long road

California Highway Patrol officer Armando Garcia explains the process of getting a driver's license during an information session at the Mexican Consulate in San Diego. California will finally begin issuing licenses to those in the country illegally.
(Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press)

For decades, California has debated whether immigrants in the country illegally should be issued driver’s licenses. It began during the anti-illegal immigration movement of the mid-1990s and continued as Latinos have gained significant political clout in Sacramento.

Beginning in January, many immigrants in the country illegally will finally be able to obtain licenses.


Immigrant licenses: In the Dec. 29 California section, an article about driver’s licenses for immigrants who are in the country illegally said that proof of insurance would be required to apply for such a license. In fact, proof of insurance will be required only for a vehicle being registered or one being used during a behind-the-wheel exam. —
Here’s how California got here.

Q: What’s the history of this issue?


A: As illegal immigration soared in the 1970s, some police complained about migrants driving. In a 1979 Times article titled “Alien Drivers Seen as Perils on the Streets,” some police officers contended migrants tended to be inexperienced drivers and drove cars that were “absolute falling down wrecks” that contributed to accidents.

A big change occurred in 1994, when California voters approved Proposition 187, which denied a host of public benefits to immigrants in the country illegally. Less noticed was a law that required first-time applicants for driver’s licenses to show proof of legal residency.

Beginning in the late 1990s, the state Legislature tried several times to provide some form of drivers’ license to immigrants here illegally. But the effort was stalled by the recall election in 2003 that brought Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to power. The Legislature approved various bills after that, including one that would provide licenses to migrants who passed criminal background checks. To address critics, the bill included safeguards aimed at preventing license holders from receiving other benefits such as serving on juries, voting or buying guns. None of the effort succeeded.

There were other ideas during this period. The concept of “a special mark on the licenses [for migrants] was rebuffed by Latino lawmakers, who said it … was akin to the yellow stars the Nazis made Jews wear,” The Times reported in 2005.

Q: Was there a turning point in the debate?

A: One critical moment involved the backing of law enforcement officials. While serving as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, William J. Bratton expressed support for the idea. Others have joined him. In 2012, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck spoke at length about the benefits of providing licenses to immigrants in the country illegally. He argued that having migrants go through the same testing process as everyone else would make streets safer. Decriminalizing driving, backers said, also would likely reduce the number of hit-and-run accidents because fewer unlicensed drivers would feel compelled to flee.

“The reality is that all the things that we’ve done — ‘we’ being the state of California — over the last 14, 16 years have not reduced the problem one iota, haven’t reduced undocumented aliens driving without licenses,” Beck told The Times editorial board. “So we have to look at what we’re doing. When something doesn’t work over and over and over again, my view is that you should reexamine it to see if there is another way that makes more sense.”

Others in law enforcement, however, remained opposed to giving licenses to residents here illegally.

“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,” Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood told The Times in September. “That … really bothers me.”

Q: Are there any data on this issue?

A study released in 2013 by the Department of Motor Vehicles found that unlicensed drivers in California — the vast majority of whom are immigrants in the country illegally — are nearly three times as likely to cause a fatal crash as licensed drivers. The report suggested that road safety could be improved if more drivers completed basics licensing requirements such as passing a written exam and driving test.

Q: Has there been any polling?

A: A 2013 USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed some divisions. The poll found narrow overall support for driver’s licenses. Nearly 69% of Latino voters supported the idea, while only 44% of whites did.

Q: So what happened this year?

A: With much fanfare, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a driver’s license bill into law. “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.”

The license for immigrants in the country illegally will look different from normal licenses and come with a variety of security checks. Officials estimated the new program will cost $140 million to $220 million in the first three years. Applicants are expected to pay $50 million under current fee structures, but the law allows additional fees if necessary.

Q: What do critics say?

A: There remains strong opposition from anti-illegal immigration groups that question whether there are enough security safeguards. They also say it sends the wrong message to give licenses to residents here illegally.

Q: So what can be expected in January?

A: The DMV has been planning for what is expected to be a crush of new applicants. Officials estimate that 1.4 million immigrants who are not lawfully in the country will apply for specially marked licenses during the first three years beginning Jan. 1, The Times reported in November.

The DMV has opened four new offices and hired more than 900 additional workers.

“California officials say they have safeguards in place here to prevent fraud, including the requirement that immigrants document their residency,” The Times reported. “In addition, the special licenses will have the same high-tech features, such as special laser perforations, that have protected regular licenses from counterfeiting and altering since 2010.”

Q: Will drivers have to obtain car insurance?

A: Yes. Proof of insurance will be required to apply for a special license.