Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Undocumented immigrants cheer passage of CA drivers license bill

undocumented drivers

Frank Stoltze/KPCC

Armando Ibañez says he's relieved California will allow undocumented immigrant drivers like himself to apply for a driver's license. "I have been living in fear," he says.

Undocumented – and unlicensed – immigrant drivers Friday celebrated passage of state legislation that would allow them to apply for a California driver’s license.

“I have been living with fear of getting pulled over and stopped by police, and getting deported,” Armando Ibañez told reporters gathered at the offices of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Ibañez, who works three food service jobs in downtown L.A., said he’s been driving for 12 years without a license.

“I am asking the governor to please sign the bill,” said Ibañez, 30, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Governor Jerry Brown has said he will sign the legislation, which gives the Department of Motor Vehicles until 2015 to develop regulations for implementation.

“It’s been stressful for all of us,” said Araceli Sanchez, 49, who came to the U.S. in 1994 and lives in West LA. She recalls police impounding her car a decade ago — as she was returning home from the grocery store with her three children — because she did not have a driver’s license.

“When this happened, I was alone on the street with my children,” she said. “I had to walk home with my three kids and my groceries.”

Sanchez, who works as a housekeeper and painter, said she never retrieved her car because she couldn’t afford the impound fees. She eventually bought another one.

Nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Federal law requires such licenses to clearly indicate the person is not in the U.S. legally. Department of Motor Vehicles officials will decide how California will comply with federal law — a key demand of Brown's. The law would take effect no later than January 1, 2015.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck supported the bill. He argued it would improve safety on the roads because studies show unlicensed drivers cause more accidents. Opponents said the bill would make it easier for terrorists to obtain an ID, and that holding a driver’s license should be a privilege reserved for people in the country legally.

Under California’s AB60, sponsored by Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas), eligibility would be based on two factors: proof of residency (apartment lease, utility bill, etc.); and proof of identification (passport, consular ID, etc). The DMV will decide which IDs are acceptable.

Estimates of the number of eligible people range from 1.4 million to more than two million people – at least half of whom live in Los Angeles County.

“It’s a big victory,” said Antonio Bernabe, an organizer with the coalition. “It's something we’ve been struggling with for years.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously said that a federal tax identification number would be required of undocumented individuals who apply for a driver's license. 

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