Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

California's undocumented immigrant driver's license bill: What it does, who it benefits

The 405 Freeway in Los Angeles, October 2008
The 405 Freeway in Los Angeles, October 2008
Photo by Eyeshotpictures/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Now that a California bill which would give certain undocumented immigrants the right to a driver's license is on its way to the governor's office, it's a good time to explain just what it does and who it benefits.

AB 2189 cleared the state Assembly late Thursday night and is now headed to Gov. Jerry Brown for approval. It's the latest of Democratic Los Angeles Assembly member Gil Cedillo's many efforts to allow driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants in California, legally barred from obtaining them since 1993. But unlike some headlines might imply, its scope is limited.

The beneficiaries would be young undocumented immigrants who qualify for deferred action, a form of temporary legal status they may apply for under a new Obama administration policy; it would not apply to all undocumented immigrants in the state. From a bill summary:

Under existing federal law, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security has issued a directive allowing certain undocumented individuals who meet several key criteria for relief from removal from the United States or from entering into removal proceedings to be eligible to receive deferred action for a period of 2 years, subject to renewal, and who will be eligible to apply for work authorization.

This bill would allow persons who provide satisfactory proof, as described, that their presence in the United States is authorized under federal law, but who are not eligible for a social security account number, to receive an original driver?s license from the Department of Motor Vehicles if they meet all other qualifications for licensure.

Some background: In 1993, a California measure signed into law by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson required state driver's license applicants to provide a Social Security number and proof that their presence in the state was "authorized under federal law," essentially barring undocumented immigrants from obtaining them. Cedillo began introducing measures to allow licenses for these immigrants some time later; in 2003, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis signed his SB 60 into law. But following the recall of Davis and the election of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the controversial law was repealed. Attempts since then have failed, although Los Angeles Police Department chief Charlie Beck came out in support of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants earlier this year, framing it as a matter of public safety.

AB 2189, also sponsored by Cedillo, is narrower in scope than his previous driver's license bills, but it would make official the state's policy on driver's licenses for deferred action recipients, a hotly contested issue since Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said she would not grant licenses to those who qualify and officials in some other states began saying the same. Narrow as it is, though, the bill would still have a relatively far reach in California: According to a bill analysis from Cedillo's office, there are approximately 450,000 undocumented immigrants in the state who could meet deferred action requirements now or in the near future.

In order to qualify for deferred action, applicants must have come to the United States before age 16, have a record free of any serious criminal offenses, have lived in the U.S. at least five consecutive years and have been no older than 30 as of last June 15, among other things.

Gov. Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the license bill.