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Snag over immigrant driver's licenses troubles would-be applicants



Lizette Mata of the California DMV talks to potential applicants for a new driver's license for immigrants in the country illegally during an event at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights.
Lizette Mata of the California DMV talks to potential applicants for a new driver's license for immigrants in the country illegally during an event at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Lizette Mata of the California DMV talks to potential applicants for a new driver's license for immigrants in the country illegally during an event at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights.
Members of the community activist group LA Voice wait their turn to raise their concerns about the new driver's license law.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Lizette Mata of the California DMV talks to potential applicants for a new driver's license for immigrants in the country illegally during an event at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights.
More than 130 people turned out to better understand how the new driver's license will work and ask questions.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Lizette Mata of the California DMV talks to potential applicants for a new driver's license for immigrants in the country illegally during an event at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights.
(From l. to r.) Lizette Mata of California DMV, Linda Lopez of LA’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, LAPD Lt. Al Labrada, LAPD Capt. Martin A. Bacza, Patricia Perez and Jonathan Hidalgo of the Mexican Consulate.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Lizette Mata of the California DMV talks to potential applicants for a new driver's license for immigrants in the country illegally during an event at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights.
Lizette Mata of the California DMV addresses meeting-goers at the Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Lizette Mata of the California DMV talks to potential applicants for a new driver's license for immigrants in the country illegally during an event at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights.
Georgina Marina of the Mexican consulate handed out study materials for the driver's license exam.
Josie Huang/KPCC


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California's new law allowing immigrants in the country illegally to apply for driver's licenses is less than six months from going live.

But the federal government's insistence that the new licenses stand out from the standard-issue cards is creating anxiety among some immigrants who say it makes them afraid to apply. 

At a Wednesday evening meeting on the law that brought city and state officials to Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights, seamstress Isabel Salas said: "I do agree that there has to be something that differentiates our driver's license." 

But Salas, an activist with L.A. Voice which organized the event at the church, said the markings have to be "minimal" so card-holders don't feel singled out.

"The less evident it is, the more willing people will be to apply," said Salas, who walks or takes the bus to work because she lacks the legal status to drive.

RELATED: Feds reject design of Calif. driver's license for immigrants living illegally in the state

The Department of Homeland Security last month rejected the state's proposed design, saying it failed to meet national security requirements. Supporters of the design argue that it includes markings recognizable to law enforcement, without stigmatizing the license-holders during everyday use at the store or the bank.

Officials with the Mexican consulate were present at the event to offer guidance to the Mexican nationals expected to make up the bulk of the 1.4 million people expected to apply for the special license over the next three years.

"What we are concerned about is that our people could be discriminated against," said Patricia Perez Galeana of the consulate's Department of Protection.

Ongoing conversations

The California Department of Motor Vehicles is in regular contact with DHS to resolve the disagreement, sometimes on a daily basis, said Lizette Mata, the DMV's deputy director of special projects who was asked about the issue at the Dolores Mission event.

"We have the Governor's office involved," Mata said. "We have a lot of support behind us showing the Department of Homeland Security they need to kind of let us do our job."

Mata said the department hopes to avoid changing its proposed design which includes a marking on the front: “DP” as in “driving privilege" instead of the typical "DL."

The back of the card would have language stating the license was not a form of federal identification.

Mata said she knows fear and confusion around the license design are making people nervous about applying. But she said to consider the alternative.

"If they don't have a license, they are driving illegally," Mata said. "They'll still be able to get a ticket and have their vehicle impounded in certain cities in the state that don't have as discretionary laws as LA." 

Tony Montes is a 22-year-old house painter who lacks legal status so he uses the bus and asks for rides to get to jobs in Orange County. He said he hopes the new license doesn't look too different. He's worried that he'll get hassled by police if he ever is stopped.

"I think they'll ask a lot more questions, like how did you get this? How long have you had it? There will be more difficulties," Montes said.

Capt. Martin Baeza tried to reassure people at Dolores Mission that LAPD officers are not interested in a driver's immigration status during a traffic stop. "I just need to know it’s a valid license," Baeza said.

Baeza said police would work with any license design that's finalized.

"Whatever they come up with, it’s going to be OK," Baeza said. 

Still on track?

The consensus among officials at the event is that the design dispute would not stop the law from taking effect by January.

As the design issue pends, Mata said the DMV has been extremely busy training staff on the new law and preparing to open four new locations to handle the expected deluge of license applications: LA's Granada Hills neighborhood, Stanton in Orange County, Lompoc in Santa Barbara County, and San Jose.

The agency will also be holding a hearing on the application process — for example, what documents are required — on June 24 in Los Angeles.

In the meantime, applicants are strongly encouraged to start studying for the written exam.

Perez Galeana said the Mexican Consulate will offer a five hour-long driver's license class on June 14.

And Mata said that DMV is offering practice tests online, study sheets and flashcards to help applicants get ready for the test.