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.


California's undocumented immigrant driver's license bill: What it does, who it benefits


Photo by Eyeshotpictures/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The 405 Freeway in Los Angeles, October 2008

Now that a California bill which would give certain undocumented immigrants the right to a driver's license is on its way to the governor's office, it's a good time to explain just what it does and who it benefits.

AB 2189 cleared the state Assembly late Thursday night and is now headed to Gov. Jerry Brown for approval. It's the latest of Democratic Los Angeles Assembly member Gil Cedillo's many efforts to allow driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants in California, legally barred from obtaining them since 1993. But unlike some headlines might imply, its scope is limited.

The beneficiaries would be young undocumented immigrants who qualify for deferred action, a form of temporary legal status they may apply for under a new Obama administration policy; it would not apply to all undocumented immigrants in the state. From a bill summary:


It's a no-go for California Dream Act repeal effort

Screen shot from's Facebook page

It looks like the just-enacted California Dream Act is here to stay, at least until the next attempt at a ballot initiative to repeal it. The "Stop AB 131" campaign, spearheaded by Republican state Assembly member Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks, has announced that the effort failed to gather enough signatures in order to place a referendum on the November ballot.

According to the campaign's Facebook page, paid and volunteer signature-gatherers fell more than 57,000 signatures short of the 504,760 that were needed by yesterday's midnight deadline. The initiative would have mandated a repeal to a measure signed into law last year by Gov. Jerry Brown that provides financial aid for undocumented college students, making easier for them to pay tuition.


California Dream Act 101: What it does, who qualifies, and what happens next

Photo by un.sospiro/Flickr (Creative Commons)

On Saturday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a landmark piece of state legislation that will allow undocumented college students to obtain publicly-funded financial aid, now only available to students who are U.S. citizens and legal residents. It's part of a two-bill package referred to as the California Dream Act, the first part of which Brown signed into law last July.

The bill signed this weekend, AB131, has been extremely divisive in a state that's undergoing a budget crisis. Opponents have said the state can't afford it; supporters have pointed out that part of the funding for the measure is already set aside annually for low-income students, including undocumented kids who have so far been unable to tap into it.

So what does the California Dream Act do, exactly? A few basics:


Tweeting the California Dream Act

The hashtag #dreamact has been trending on Twitter since Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law this morning a bill known as AB 131, which allows undocumented college students who meet state residency requirements to obtain state-funded financial aid for tuition. The bill is the second of two bills referred to as the California Dream Act, the first of which Brown signed in July.

The controversial measure has long drawn both ardent support and outrage, especially given the state's financial woes. A few recent tweets, first the happy ones:

From @sigourneynunez:

Proud to be a Californian! #dreamscometrue #DREAMAct

From @lizap:

Yes! Jerry Brown passes #DreamAct in the Golden State. Are you listening, Alabama? #p2

From @joseiswriting, aka Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post reporter who recently came out as undocumented:

Gov. brown just signed CA #DREAMAct into law. Congrats to all, especially to young CA activists #inspiration

From @48thave:

@JerryBrownGov Thank you for introducing sanity to CA immigration policy for my undocumented bros & sisters. Go, Jerry! #DreamAct

And some not-so-happy tweets:

From ruby4050:

#CA is doomed #DREAMAct Highest unemployement, lowest business prospects, highest taxes, foreclosures and now illegals!

From @jocatapi:

i guess i need to renig my US citizenship,go to mexico to get mexican citizenship, jump the border THEN my state will recognize me #DreamAct

From @VasquezMusic:

Hey, I'm Latina but I do not support the #DreamAct make the illegals LEGAL first!

And referring to Republican state Assembly member Tim Donnelly, an opponent of the measure, @davidsiders wrote:

Donnelly calls #DreamAct "biggest mistake that Gov. Brown has ever made ... other than unionizing public employees."

Until now, undocumented college students in California have been barred from public financial aid. AB 130, the companion bill to AB 131, allowed these students access to privately funded scholarships and grants only.

A recent version of AB 131 can be downloaded here.