How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Immigrants worry about having the right papers to apply for driver's licenses

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California last year became the biggest state to allow immigrants without legal status to apply for driver’s licenses. But regulators still need to write the rules, and some immigrants are concerned the finalized law might not work as intended.

A chief worry is that immigrants won't have the necessary documents to even apply for a license – nor have a way of producing duplicates.

“They come from places where sometimes they don’t have communication with people anymore," said Olga Perez, a community organizer with LA Voice. "Some of them don’t even have family members over there. They came on their own and they lost contact."

Perez was among more than 250 people who packed the Bell Community Center Thursday night for a hearing on the law with officials from the Department of Motors Vehicles, and state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens.

The DMV says it has to determine an applicant's identity and state residency to prevent fraud. Many who testified asked officials to consider accepting less- conventional forms of identification such as school ID cards and union employee cards, or — if immigrants have children — birth certificates, baptismal certificates and immunization records.

But some expressed doubt that the law — for which an estimated 1.4 million immigrants are eligible — will be even be carried out in good faith. Through an interpreter, Atalia Cervantes of Pomona asked officials for assurances that her personal information would not be turned over to immigration enforcement agents.

"It would be very dishonest to trust you and then you turn your back," said Cervantes, who attended the hearing with one of her three children.

Ted Burnett, who’s with the union representing DMV workers, promised applicants will be treated well.

"We will work with the department and the community groups to give you the utmost dignity and respect," Burnett said.

Elva Alvarez's misgivings were not with the DMV but with law enforcement. She pointed out that some officials have voiced opposition to the law, also known as AB 60.

"I suggest you create a regulation requiring local agencies to accept the new AB 60 license as a driver ID," said Alvarez, who is with the Pomona Day Labor Center.  "It is really scary out there with the checkpoints, and we don't want any more family separations."

Sen. Lara said that the Legislature was aware of law enforcement "who don't want to comply with the law."

"We know it's a big problem not only in the Inland Empire but in the Central Valley, Fresno, Bakersfield, up north," Lara said. "It's something that we're looking at."

Coming on the heels of a similar hearing in Sacramento, the Bell event was the second and last chance for the public to give the DMV input before it starts to write the new rules.

Brian Soublet, the DMV's assistant chief counsel of the DMV, said that the agency hopes to complete a draft of the rules by late spring, after which it will hold public hearings.

The new driver's license program is supposed to go live by January 2015, although Soublet said officials would try to launch it faster because of high demand. Some of the people at the hearing testified the sooner the program can come on-line, the sooner they can feel less vulnerable.

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