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Debate resumes over drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants

Drivers fill the 110 freeway during afternoon rush-hour on January 9, 2008 in Los Angeles, California.
Drivers fill the 110 freeway during afternoon rush-hour on January 9, 2008 in Los Angeles, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

The debate over whether to grant driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants is a familiar one in California. Last week, a new law kicked in guaranteeing driver's licenses for a small subset of them - young people approved for temporary legal status under the federal deferred action program that started in August.

Now, the governor of Illinois is poised to sign a measure - similar to some that have failed in California - that would let an estimated quarter-million undocumented immigrants there obtain licenses. If signed, the law would make Illinois one of four states in the country with similar policies.

It might also contribute to momentum elsewhere for broader access to licenses. In California, Assemblyman Luis Alejo, a Democrat from Salinas, is pushing a bill that would allow driver's licenses for California residents regardless of their immigration status if they pay taxes. And in Connecticut, where deferred action recipients may also obtain licenses, activists are trying to expand access for other undocumented immigrants.

A national controversy over driver's licenses as an immigration issue has exploded in recent months, after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said she would not grant them to young people who obtain deferred action. That federal program offers a two-year reprieve from deportation and work permits to young immigrants who can prove they arrived in the United States before they turned 16, have relatively clean records, have lived in the country five consecutive years and were no older than 30 as of last June 15.

Several states have since followed Arizona's lead - most recently Iowa, where officials last month prohibited licenses for deferred action recipients. Although California never imposed those conditions, its new state license law guarantees that it won't. But it applies only to those who obtain deferred action; undocumented immigrants in general cannot legally obtain California drivers licenses.

Illinois, meanwhile, follows Washington, New Mexico, and Utah; the two former states allow driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, while Utah provides a special driving permit. But the process in these states hasn't always been smooth, with some officials complaining about out-of-state residents applying for licenses and other fraud issues. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has been a vocal critic of the license policy in her state. Officials there are considering whether to change or repeal the law.

Illinois officials have said that undocumented immigrants would be able to use their licenses for driving, but not, say, as identification to board an airplane.

Supporters of drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants frequently point to public safety and a need to get unlicensed drivers off the roads, as Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck did in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last year. But despite several attempts over the years by former Assembly member Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles, these measures have never made it past the governor's desk in California. On more than one occasion, Cedillo's bills cleared the legislature but hit dead ends after that. 

The new California license bill, AB 60, could surface in committee next month.