California's new driver's license bill includes very troubling trade-offs for immigrants

Is it a license to deport?

While Pete Wilson was governor of California 20 years ago, he squeezed anti-immigrant feelings for every drop of political juice he could get. He pushed Proposition 187, denying health care and education and other services to those who immigrated here illegally, and rode its popularity to a second term. The measure was ultimately struck down in the courts, and the real immigrant-bashing action moved on to other states like Arizona.

But some of the nastiness from the Wilson era proved to be awfully long-lived. In 1993, the year before Prop. 187, Wilson signed another new law making it illegal for anyone without a Social Security number to get a California driver’s license. Effectively making it illegal for immigrants to drive a car to work or to school or to the grocery store or to a doctor’s appointment. And so, for the last two decades, the everyday chores of many people have been fraught with danger of arrest and confiscation of their vehicles. And though the law was meant to punish one group, we all the pay the costs of having more unlicensed drivers on the road.

Democratic lawmakers, immigrant-rights and labor groups have been trying to get rid of the wrongheaded law ever since. And this year, they succeeded, though with some very troubling trade-offs.

When, Assemblyman Luis A. Alejo, a Democrat from Watsonville, introduced his Assembly Bill 60 in the spring, the legislation was pretty straightforward. The new bill allowed anyone to get a license without a Social Security number if they had several other pieces of identification, including things like a consular ID and a birth certificate. That would have given California a license scheme similar to the states of New Mexico and Washington. We could finally say adios to this noxious remainder of Wilson’s legacy, and everybody could go back about their business.

Alas, that’s not good enough for the Department of Homeland Security, which has been trying awfully hard to make states comply with the national Real ID Act. Passed in 2005—following the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission—Real ID requires proof of citizenship for state-issued licenses, and entry of license information into a national database, among other provisions.

After negotiations with the governor’s office, Alejo included amendments requiring a “recognizable feature” on the front flagging the drivers undocumented status, along with a statement on the back saying the license couldn’t be used as an ID for any federal purpose. The language was so vague that it could have allowed another Wilson to come along and stamp “UNDOCUMENTED” in big red letters on the new licenses.

“It would have been a license to deport,” said Ronald Coleman, with the California Immigrant Policy Center. Under pressure from immigrant-rights and labor groups, Alejo specified that the licenses should be more subtle, with markings, such as “DP” for “driving privilege” or “DL” for full licenses.

More tasteful, yes, but how is it any less of a scarlet letter? The bill makes it illegal to discriminate against someone with a DP license—even while the markings are an obvious invitation to discriminate. Applicants will also be required to sign an affidavit, “attesting that he or she is both ineligible for a social security account number and unable to submit satisfactory proof that his or her presence in the United States is authorized.” The law includes language saying law enforcement can’t use the licenses to investigate citizenship status. But it seems naive to think it won’t do just that.

“We are worried about the feds coming in and asking to see who signed an affidavit,” said Coleman. And imagine an immigrant with a California driver’s license who travels to work in Arizona, where the letters “DP” would give police all the reasonable suspicion they need to do an immigration check.

And what’s the hurry to comply with Real ID? Most states haven’t, and they keep balking at its costs and at the notion of a national ID. Montana’s former Gov. Brian Schweitzer rejected it, saying, “Montana will not agree to share its citizens’ personal and private information through a national database.”

The bill won’t take effect until January 1, 2015. So undocumented immigrants still can’t apply for licenses for more than a year. Why did California need to rush to comply with the Real ID Act, when it’s not clear DHS is going to be able to enforce it? And would the federal government really make good on threats to bar Californians from entering federal buildings or flying on airplanes?

“No, we don’t believe the [Transportation Security Administration] is going to tell California that all of their driver’s licenses are invalid for travel,” said Coleman. It’s good that Californians can get back on the road and leave this ugly anti-immigrant chapter behind. But there may be trouble on the road ahead for anyone driving with a DP license.