Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Poll: Californians' attitudes toward driver's licenses for undocumented have softened

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Attitudes seem to be changing in California over whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to have driver's licenses, a new Field Poll suggests.

The poll asked several immigration-related questions of California voters, including whether undocumented immigrants currently living in the state should be allowed to obtain a driver's license. For the first time since the question was asked in 2005, a majority responded yes. 

Fifty-two percent of poll respondents said they agreed that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to obtain licenses, while 43 percent gave a thumbs-down. This is a big contrast from 2005, when 62 percent said they did not think undocumented immigrants should be licensed to drive. At the time, just 35 percent said they should.

California already allows some undocumented immigrants to drive. A new law that took effect Jan. 1 provides licenses for qualified deferred action applicants. That federal program allows young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as minors to apply for a two-year reprieve from deportation. 

But the law affects only a small number of young people, many of whom had already applied for their licenses before deferred action kicked in. What it mostly does is guarantee that California's Department of Motor Vehicles won't reject the federal documents; in some other states, including Arizona, officials have moved to prevent deferred action recipients from obtaining licenses.

The more contentious debate that the poll addresses is whether undocumented immigrants in general should be licensed to drive in the state. It's been 20 years since they were barred from obtaining California licenses. Since then there have been several attempts to reverse the law, led by former Assembly member Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles. But none of the measures has made it past the governor's desk.

Supporters of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants often point to public safety and a need to get unlicensed drivers off the roads, as Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck did last year in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Opponents, meanwhile, have characterized driver's licenses as a privilege that people who entered illegally don't deserve.

Last month, a new state measure was introduced that proposes granting licenses to undocumented immigrants who can prove they pay taxes.

Aside from driver's licenses, the new Field Poll asks questions about a path to citizenship and border security, among other topics. While the vast majority (90 percent) said they favored a path to citizenship for people who "have a job, learned English and pay back taxes," 65 percent also said they favored increasing the number of federal agents patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border.

See the complete poll results here

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