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

The backlash over California's new immigrant driver's license law

DMV signage at the California Department of Motor Vehicles in Pasadena, California.
DMV signage at the California Department of Motor Vehicles in Pasadena, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law Sunday directing state officials to let some young undocumented immigrants apply for driver's licenses, but some of those who would benefit aren't happy about it. It's a complicated back-and-forth, which some saying the law was unnecessary, and supporters of the law saying it was needed to prevent license applicants from facing hassles at the local level. 

The bill that Brown signed into law, AB 2189, basically directs the Department of Motor Vehicles to allow the young recipients of deferred action - a two-year form of temporary legal status that many are applying for - to be able to seek California licenses with the federal documents they obtain. 

But many young immigrant activists who could benefit from deferred action - and get driver's licenses - say the license law wasn't needed and that it was signed by Brown at the expense of other, more controversial laws that he vetoed, including a measure that could have limited deportations and one that proposed workplace rights for domestic employees.

Their argument is that under existing law, it's already possible for deferred action recipients to apply for a license once they have a social security number and a work permit, which they are eligible for if they qualify. The argument presented by AB 2189 supporters, however, is that because deferred action is a new policy, there might be snags encountered by applicants at the local Department of Motor Vehicles level. The law codifies that the DMV must accept the federal documents presented by deferred action recipients wishing to apply for a license, no exceptions.

"They are absolutely wrong, there is no evidence, no proof to support what they have to say, it is just an argument," said bill sponsor Gil Cedillo, a Democratic Assembly member from Los Angeles. "The fact of the matter is that we are in a really difficult time period for immigrants. We don’t want to let some DMV staff person say ‘I don’t like this, we don’t have to give it to you."

Still, public confusion surrounding whether or not deferred applicants are entitled to apply for driver's licenses has mounted since Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer announced that her state would not allow it, and other conservative lawmakers elsewhere began to follow suit. Brewer issued an executive order in August to this effect, which immigrant advocates say is illegal; civil rights groups have threatened to sue.

Some young immigrant activists say that it might have been a better strategy to support legal action against Brewer than for California to put its own law on the books, setting a precedent.

"Individuals who benefit from deferred action across the country are going to believe that they need to have a law in their state to be able to qualify. So that creates confusion," said Carlos Amador, a 27-year-old student activist who adjusted to legal status last year. "Another strategy that immigrant activists could have taken was to support any litigation that would occur in the state of Arizona or others."

So far, only a handful of deferred action applicants have been approved nationwide. But Cedillo said that eventually, the new driver's license law could apply to as many as 500,000 families in the state.