California Immigrants May Flag Status to Get Driver’s License

To get the driver’s licenses they’ve long sought, immigrants living in California illegally will have to do something many have long resisted: publicly identify themselves.

The driver’s license bill that the Legislature passed on its final day requires a distinction that will indicate if someone is in the country without proper documentation.

Like many immigrants, Albin Bandera said he’s willing to take the risk. The 28-year-old said he currently skateboards to his job as a waiter in Los Angeles.

“It’s just great because I can be mobile and able to transport myself from job to job, to school,” said Bandera, who came here from Mexico as a toddler. “The day it comes out, I am there, the first one in line.”

Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign the bill despite expressing opposition in the past. The governor said at an event in San Francisco Friday that Washington’s “foot-dragging” on immigration reform helped convince him the move was necessary.

“I think they need a good push, and that’s what I think this driver’s license bill does,” Brown said. “It says California recognizes these human beings are very important to our communities, to our economy and hopefully the people in Washington will get the message.”

It’s one of several pro-immigrant pieces of legislation approved at the end of the session and would add California to the growing list of states that give driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally. Other measures aim to crack down on fraud by immigration lawyers and consultants, ensure overtime pay for domestic workers, and scale back cooperation between police and federal immigration authorities.

In California, the bill authored by Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo would grant licenses to anyone who passes written and road tests, regardless of immigration status. The licenses would carry a distinction on the front of the card, however, and state that they are to be used for driving and not as federal identification to board an airline flight.

It isn’t clear whether entities in California like local government offices, libraries or banks would accept the license as a form of identification, immigrant advocates said. Some worry the distinction will contribute to racial profiling and discrimination, but many immigrants are desperate to drive without fear of being ticketed, having their car impounded or being detained by police and potentially deported.

“What is most important to us is there be protection against law enforcement action or discrimination on the basis of the marker,” said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which opposed a prior version of the bill. “It’s not perfect but obviously is much needed.”

Juan Mejia, who drives without a license to his job cleaning office buildings in San Diego, said he worries police will use the marker to alert immigration authorities and potentially get him deported. While he would welcome any identification to make life easier, his Mexican consular identification card has let him open a bank account and buy car insurance.

“Is it going to be a trick that, through this marker, they can say, `You are undocumented,’ and you get turned over to immigration?” asked Mejia, a 40-year-old native of the Mexican city of Cuernavaca who said he came to the U.S. illegally about 20 years ago. “We need to be better informed. Once I am better informed, I will make a decision.”

Kim Raney, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, was adamant that police wouldn’t use the marker to enforce immigration laws. Immigration authorities already check records when someone is booked into jail, but a speeding ticket wouldn’t result in a referral, said Raney, the police chief in the Los Angeles suburb of Covina.

David Swing, police chief of Morgan Hill, near San Jose, insisted that police policies wouldn’t be any different than they are today.

“I don’t see how it’s much different than today by someone not having a driver’s license or other form of identification. I don’t think it changes anything in effect today,” he said.

State insurance authorities backed the bill as a way to increase the number of drivers who have insurance. The industry estimates about 15 percent of vehicles are uninsured, a significant number of them operated by immigrants unable to get a license.

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said it was too soon to know whether the bill would affect rates, but more drivers will be tested and licensed drivers are more likely to carry insurance.

“One would expect it would translate into lower costs for the insurance companies that should be passed on to the consumers,” Jones said.

State officials estimate 1.4 million drivers will apply for licenses under the law.

The legislation will defuse controversies throughout California over unlicensed motorists who are stopped at sobriety checkpoints. Many who are not drunk have their cars impounded because they are unlicensed, said Raney, the president of the police chief’s association, which backed the bill.

Hilda Escobar, a Guatemalan woman who said she entered the U.S. illegally in 2003, said getting a license will be a huge relief. Escobar, 45, had to pay $480 when her vehicle was impounded about two years ago in San Diego because she was driving without a license.

“Driving isn’t a privilege in California,” she said. “It’s a necessity.”