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Police Chief Beck: Let undocumented immigrants drive

Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck talks to members of the media.
Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck talks to members of the media.
Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images

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Should undocumented immigrants be given an opportunity to obtain driver’s licenses in California? Absolutely, said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who announced Wednesday that he’s proposing that California institute a policy for allowing non-resident drivers to obtain provisional driver’s licenses. Beck said the move will not only make roads safer and decrease the number of hit-and-run accidents, but will also help police identify people they come into contact with on California roads. Beck’s predecessor, former Chief William J. Bratton, also voiced support for the idea.

Beck held a press conference today not to campaign for the licenses, but to defend the comments reported in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday regarding the issue. KPCC’s Ruxandra Guidi was on hand at the conference and said that Beck’s main point was that having a cadre of unlicensed and unregistered drivers on the roads is an endangerment to society.

He also cited similar policies already in place in Utah and Washington that allow undocumented people to obtain a provisional license that allows them to drive, but that bars them from using it to obtain other benefits. The policy in those states has decreased the cost of traffic police there and it has allowed police to keep better track of who’s on the roads.

Some critics of Beck’s move question whether or not this is simply a politically motivated maneuver aimed at getting on the good side of Latino population. While KPCC reporter Frank Stoltze acknowledged that politically “it’s not necessarily a bad move” for Beck, he went on to say that Beck’s main motivation is from a purely public safety point of view.

“There’s a problem with folks that are involved with hit and run accidents. Many of those people, according to Beck, are people who are unlicensed drivers and undocumented,” said Stoltze. “If you require them to get a license you are requiring them to have the training. You end up with more skilled undocumented drivers.”

While it is estimated that there are tens of thousands of unlicensed undocumented drivers on the roads, it’s impossible to know the actual number. According to a recent Automobile Association of America Foundation for Traffic Safety study, five percent of drivers involved in fatal accidents were unlicensed and 18 percent of fatal accidents involved unlicensed or invalidly licensed.

“This is a chief who comes from the old LAPD which is a relatively conservative organization, who over time has changed his thinking about a whole variety of issues,” said Stoltze. “He is interested in taking what he considers is a more practical approach to all of these unlicensed undocumented drivers.”

Some critics of Beck’s policy are uncomfortable with the idea of rewarding people who are in the country illegally with the gift of legal driving status and the additional perks that a driver’s license can provide.

At the press conference, Beck insisted that giving licenses to undocumented drivers would be the opposite of rewarding, because requiring them to be licensed means they’d have to register their car, get insured and follow the law.

From the phones:

Being involved with an unlicensed and uninsured driver can be a hefty financial burden. Caller Whitney from El Monte had a personal experience with being the victim of such an accident. “I was hit by an undocumented person at one time. Fortunately I had uninsured motorist coverage, but I had zero financial recourse on that issue to collect any kind of damages, I was stuck paying the bill and there was nothing I could do about it.”

Some critics argue that Beck’s policy would be seen as rewarding people who enter the country illegally. Whitney agrees: “From a police chief perspective, it’s simple, give us a way to track people so when something does happen we can figure out who’s at fault, people pay their taxes, people register their vehicles,” she said. “From a political and a personal standpoint, it’s very unsavory. I don’t like the idea of these undocumented immigrants being able to have the privilege of driving on the road.”

Caller Joe from Echo Park, a 30-year resident of the city who is an undocumented immigrant originally from South America, offers a different perspective. “I would get a license if I could. I would go tomorrow and get it, because I have to drive, regardless of to go to work or run errands. I am forced to do it without a license, not because I want to, but because I have to,” he says. “I don’t see why they are making it into an anti-immigrant situation to forbid us from something we want to do and need to do. “


Do you think the roads would be safer if illegal immigrants could have driver’s licenses and does the safety issue outweigh possible disadvantages of licensing illegal immigrants?


Frank Stoltze, KPCC Reporter

Ruxandra Guidi, KPCC Immigration Reporter. She was in the plaza in front of LAPD headquarters where Chief Charlie Beck is making a brief statement on the topic of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants