Immigrant Driver Licenses Get Green Light in Calif.

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on September 15, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A new California "immigrant driver's license" bill will allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain a special driver's license by January 1, 2015. The license would be for driving only, and would not be valid for voter registration, the collection of public benefits, or even for use as an ID to board a plane.

It's a major victory for California's immigrants' rights movement. Over the last decade, similar bills failed to pass time and time again.

But as the bill awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature, there are both proponents and opponents of stronger undocumented immigrant rights who aren't thrilled about the bill.

Special Undocumented Driver's License

Since many unauthorized immigrants are reportedly already driving, the bill is meant to help them get to work safely and legally. The bill requires undocumented immigrant drivers to be trained, tested and to obtain insurance, reports U-T San Diego.

Originally, showing proof of taxes or work was meant to be sufficient for a license. But instead, California's Department of Motor Vehicles will determine what documentation will be required. The requirements must comply with the federal Real ID Act, which creates a set of security standards for U.S. state drivers' licenses and identification cards.

The back of the license will likely read: "This license is issued only as a license to drive a motor vehicle. It does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration or public benefits," according to the U-T.

The front of the license would have a special "DP" (driver's privilege) notation instead of "DL" (driver's license).

Criticism Revs Up

Some critics oppose any kind driver's licenses for unauthorized immigrants, saying it rewards unlawful behavior and weakens the responsibilities and values of becoming a legal permanent resident.

At the other end of the critical spectrum are immigrants' rights activists who say the special "Driving Privileges Only" marker is effectively a "Scarlet Letter" that will open the door to discrimination and racial profiling. They want a non-distinguishable document.

Supporters of the bill are sympathetic to the "Scarlet Letter" concerns. But with California's immigration reform devolving into a war of attrition, supporters have taken a more pragmatic approach to passing the bill and adopted an "it's better than nothing" mindset.

Governor Jerry Brown hopes the victory, albeit rife with compromise, "will send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due," reports the U-T.

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