Undocumented Immigrants to Get Driver's Licenses in California

  • October 01, 2012
  • By Jim Malewitz

California may grant driver's licenses to some undocumented immigrants under a new law.

On a mixed day for pro-immigrant advocates, Governor Jerry Brown late Sunday (September 30) signed into law legislation directing the state Department of Motor Vehicles to grant licenses to illegal immigrants who qualify for the federal government's “deferred action,” program, which grants temporary legal status to some undocumented immigrants brought into the U.S. as children.

California would become the first state to issue licenses specifically to that group, though Washington State and New Mexico both do so for undocumented immigrants at large, and Utah offers a "driving privilege card" tailored specifically for Utahns living illegally in the U.S.

As many as 450,000 undocumented Californians may qualify for licenses under the new law, its backers estimate.

"It is a victory for those who were brought here through no choice of their own, played by the rules, and are only asking to be included in and contribute to American society,” Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, the bill's Democratic sponsor, said according to the Associated Press.

With Brown's signature on the legislation, Cedillo fulfilled a 10-year-old promise to his wife, a community activist, as she lay dying of cancer.

"She made me promise. It became my mission,” he told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month.

But the victory came on a day when pro-immigrant groups saw a setback on another front.  The governor vetoed legislation that would have protected some undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Under the so-called Trust Act, widely referred to as “Anti-Arizona” legislation, California would have opted out of parts of a federal program requiring law enforcement officials to check the fingerprints of people arrest against a database of people living in the country illegally.

Tens of thousands of people nationwide have been detained for deportation under the “Secure Communities” program. That includes about 72,000 Californians, 70 percent of whom have no criminal convictions or have committed only minor offenses, according to the bill's sponsor.

The California legislation would have protected such undocumented immigrants from deportation, except for those who had committed violent or serious felonies. Immigration advocates had hoped the bill would serve as a model for states across the country.

In his veto message, Brown said he agreed with the spirit of the bill, which easily cleared the House and Senate in August, but had qualms with some of its language.

“Until we have comprehensive immigration reform, federal agents shouldn't try to coerce local law enforcement officers from detaining people who have been picked up for minor offenses and pose no reasonable threat to their community. But I cannot sign this bill as written,” Brown wrote, noting that several seemingly serious crimes had been left off the list of exemptions.

“For example, the bill would bar local cooperation even when the person arrested had been convicted of certain crimes involving child abuse, drug trafficking, selling weapons, using children to sell drugs, or gangs,” he wrote. "I believe it's unwise to interfere with a sheriff's discretion to comply with a detainer issued for people with those kinds of troubling criminal records.”

Brown's veto angered immigrant advocates who had lobbied for the bill's passage.

"Governor Brown has failed California's immigrant communities, imperiling civil rights and leaving us all less safe,” said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, according to Reuters.

Brown, however, said he will work with the legislature to address those “flaws” in the bill.