Latino Voices

Undocumented Immigrants Flock To Get Driver's Licenses Under New California Law


California Department of Motor Vehicles locations, often the bane of a driver’s existence, will be exciting places for more than 1 million Californians next month.

Effective Jan. 2, undocumented immigrants in the state will be able to obtain driver’s licenses and car insurance for the first time since 1993, following a decades-long push by the state legislature’s Latino caucus to address problems caused by so many unlicensed, uninsured motorists.

"While undocumented immigrants form the backbone of many key industries in California, exclusion from the ability to apply for a license has meant a simple trip to work or school can easily morph into a nightmare," Jon Rodney, a spokesman for the California Immigrant Policy Center, told The Huffington Post. "Folks have faced discriminatory car impounds, costing working families untold thousands of dollars, and even arrests."

With more than 33,000 traffic fatalities recorded in the U.S. in 2012, state officials said it’s vital to prioritize road safety over policing immigrants.

“It has nothing to do with if they’re in the country legally or illegally,” Julie Powell, a spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol, told The Sacramento Bee. “Our main concern is that the people of California are safe, and one way to assist in accomplishing that mission is to make sure California drivers are tested, trained and insured.”

The new law requires the state to provide driver’s licenses to applicants, regardless of whether they can prove their presence in the U.S. is federally authorized, and requires applicants to provide satisfactory proof of their identity and California residency.

This is the tenth state to legalize driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. But the landmark move is especially powerful in California, said to be home to the nation’s largest population of undocumented immigrants.

A spike in DMV appointments suggests strong demand for licenses. Since Nov. 12, when undocumented immigrants were first able to schedule license appointments, nearly 400,000 people have signed up, double the number during the same period in 2013, a DMV spokeswoman told the Los Angeles Times.

To prepare for the influx, the department has opened four additional locations, hired 900 new staffers and has been budgeted an extra $141 million to handle the estimated 1.4 million undocumented immigrants who will apply for licenses over the next three years, the newspaper reported.

While the Sacramento Bee reports California Assemblyman Luis Alejo authored a second bill ensuring the DMV wouldn't share information with other agencies, Rodney said some immigrants still have concerns that obtaining a license may make them a target for immigration officials.

"Given the Obama administration's painful deportation record, there are definitely concerns in immigrant communities about this," Rodney told HuffPost. "While California has enacted privacy and confidentiality protections on its end, license-holders' information will go into a database along with all other license holders. ... We are continuing to urge the federal government to commit to respecting the privacy and confidentiality of all applicants."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that this is the first time undocumented immigrants will be able to obtain driver's licenses in California. They were able to obtain driver's licenses prior to 1993.

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