How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

New state law to let some immigrants get driver's licenses might have little effect

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Traffic on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, Calif.

A new law that allows California driver’s licenses for some young undocumented immigrants kicked in Jan. 1 - but many who’d benefit from the measure already have their licenses.

The law allows driver’s licenses for young immigrants who receive deferred action, a two-year reprieve from deportation under an Obama administration program that began last August. But what it mostly does is guarantee that documents issued to deferred action beneficiaries will be accepted by the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Some states have moved to bar deferred action recipients from obtaining driver’s licenses, but this was never the case in California. Ivan Ceja, a 21-year-old college student from Compton, applied for his license as soon as he was granted deferred action in October. He received it in November, before the new state law took effect.  

“I started driving at 17, and halfway through the semester during my first semester of college I got pulled over, and so I had the experience of having my car taken away," Ceja said. "And that was really sad, I remember. A lot of people don’t realize what a big difference it makes to have a car, like a license. It just feels great. I feel a lot more confident."

The driver's license law was sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles, a longtime advocate of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, whose term ended recently. When Gov. Jerry Brown signed the measure last fall, some immigrant advocates were disappointed, seeing Brown’s move as a symbolic nod while he vetoed a more wide-ranging measure known as the TRUST Act.

That bill aimed to restrict who local cops can hold for immigration agents, and would have limited deportations, says Jorge Mario Cabrera of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.  

“We do believe that Gov. Brown can chew gum and walk at the same time, and that he didn’t this past time by vetoing the Trust Act, which would have in fact saved thousands and thousands of families from deportation," Cabrera said. "We hope that this year he will in fact have a better sense of the need for this type of bill to be passed.”  

Iowa recently became the most recent state to follow Arizona’s lead in announcing it would not issue licenses to people who obtain deferred action. But in California, their right to drive is now in writing.

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