How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Debate resumes over drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants

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

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.


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.