August 18, 2015
The San Diego Union-Tribune
In January, California became one of only 11 jurisdictions that allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. Since that time, nearly 442,000 immigrants have signed up to legally drive under the historic legislation.
After an initial influx at the Department of Motor Vehicles — an estimated 236,000 applied for a license in January — lines have tapered to manageable levels, officials say, and there have been few problems.
“We would like to think that with so many people having to study and having to know the rules of the road and what the California road signs mean … we’re hoping that that will make our roads safer,” said Jessica Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the DMV.
California is home to the nation’s largest percentage of unauthorized immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses, according to a report released Tuesday by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
An estimated 37 percent of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. live in an area where they qualify to obtain a driver’s license, with 22 percent of that population living in California, according to the Pew report.
The report provides an in-depth analysis of the 10 states and Washington, D.C., that allow unauthorized immigrants to legally obtain licenses. It looked at each state’s eligible population, the number of license applications and cost for the program, among other things.
The report comes at a time when other states are considering whether unauthorized immigrants are entitled to driver’s licenses, a rite-of-passage deeply rooted in American culture.
“Debates over whether and how to license unauthorized immigrants are ongoing in many statehouses. In the coming years, more states are likely to consider whether to allow them access to driver’s licenses, while some that have such laws may contemplate changing or repealing them,” the report said.
Though applications at California DMV offices continue to roll in, the number has tapered off significantly in recent months. An estimated 35,000 unauthorized immigrants applied for driver’s licenses in July.
“I think at the beginning there was so much interest. These people were out there driving already, driving their kids to school and to other places. There was a huge interest to finally be able to legally drive on their own,” Gonzalez said. “I think we’ll have continued interest, but I think our big spike is probably over.”
Licenses granted under AB 60 are marked with the term, “federal limits apply.”
Critics argue that driver’s licensing laws for unauthorized immigrants give this population a right they don’t deserve.
“A driver’s license is a privilege, it’s not a right,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group.
“What states like California are doing is facilitating illegal immigration. The easier you make it for people to come here and live here illegally, the more that are going to do it.”
Mehlman also dismissed the reasoning that AB 60 will make streets safer, arguing that it only makes breaking the law easier for people.
The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that promotes peace and social justice, has conducted about two dozen educational workshops since before the California driver’s license legislation was implemented.
Staff estimates a total of 600 people have attended the sessions.
“There is definitely a lot of interest and there has always been a lot of interest,” said Pedro Rios, director of the committee.
Rios said the largest benefit has come to unauthorized immigrants who are no longer at risk of having their cars impounded after routine traffic stops.
Many of them have had their cars impounded on more than one occasion, he said.
DMV officials predict that an estimated 1.4 million driver’s license applications will be fielded in the next three years as a result of AB 60.