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Calif. Bill Allowing Driver's Licenses For Undocumented Immigrants Comes With Cautions

September 17, 2013 1:24 p.m.


Lorena Gonzalez, Democratic San Diego Assemblymember, District 80

Andrea Guerrero, Executive Director, Alliance San Diego

Related Story: Calif. Bill Allowing Driver's Licenses For Undocumented Immigrants Comes With Cautions


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: California legislators have approved a bill to allow people here illegally to get driver's licenses. Governor Jerry Brown and expected to sign the bill into law. But it has some unlikely opponents. A number of immigrant rights groups are against the provision in the bill that hangs the driver's licenses look different. They say those are a red flag telling the owner of that license is here illegally. My guest, Lorena Gonzalez is a California assembly member from San Diego. Welcome to the program.

GONZALES: Thank you, Maureen. Good to see you want

CAVANAUGH: And Andrea Guerrero is executive director of Alliance San Diego.

GUERRERO: Thank you. Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Who would be eligible for a license under this bill, AB-60?

GONZALES: Well, anyone who can pass a drivers test. So I think that's important right now. We know one of eight drivers on our roadways don't have a valid license. So this will allow people to go learn how to drive properly, take the test, and also get insurance. I think it will take our streets much safer, it'll allow for people who are hard-working otherwise abiding by the law, trying to do the best for their families able to go for it. And we talked about the concerns, we talked a lot about them, the chance to pursue a driver's license and to be able to go to work, take their kids to school, and just be a law-abiding member of our society.

CAVANAUGH: Are there any guidelines that the DMV is going to impose about documentation people have to bring?

GONZALES: No, they don't have to have a job. They basically don't need a Social Security number now in order to get a license. So if they have a birth certificate, a pass port, there's a number of documents that will make them eligible to ensure that they are who they say they are. And the reason this has been so complicated is because of the federal real ID act, there's only so much that a state can do as far as what we can allow for immigrants to have on their ID, on their driver's license. And so we were trying to abide as permissively as we could and still have a law that would be upheld.

CAVANAUGH: Now you support this bill, Lorena, and you also were saying that it's better for everyone, you feel, people who are here illegally, if they have to take the test, if they need to get insurance. Is that right? Is that the reason that you want to see people with licenses?

GONZALES: There's no bones about it for me. I think it's better obviously for the immigrant. We have too many stories of people who were made into criminals basically by the fact that they have to get from point A to point B. So they're driving without a license, their cars are impounded, they're being ticketed, obtaining fines on a daily basis. So in order to really be functioning members of our society, you almost have to drive. So we have a situation, and for the last 17 years, the Latino population in particular has been trying to change this, and trying to give that opportunity. But it's not just about the immigrant. It's about our entire society. Public safety supported this. It's an effort to make our roads safer. We know that people are better drivers if they go through the process of becoming licensed. Obviously people have insurance. We have fewer claims that are the uninsured driver issue. And hopefully we have police who are spending less time ticketing and towing folks who don't have a license.

CAVANAUGH: A license for immigrants here illegally is going to look different than licenses given to legal residents. Tell us what that difference is.

GONZALES: Well, there are two things that we know will happen. And this was the sticking point for so many of us, and the reason why Andrea and I can be on different sides of this, which is really unusual. We work in coalition on almost everything. And it was a tough decision. At the last minute, the bill was changed. The governor made it clear that the only way he would sign the bill is -- they said basically that it went in line with the federal guidelines. If you look at the front of the driver's license, there's a DL in front. This will will change that to DP, so it'll be driver's privilege. And on the back there's a small print guideline of what it can't be used for. So both on the front and the back, for somebody that is looking closely, it will be clear that the person cannot be eligible for a normal driver's license.

CAVANAUGH: So Andrea, you are not on board with this. You're not crazy about the way this law is coming to the governor's desk. Why is this not the solution that you've been looking for?

GUERRERO: We all agree that driver's licenses are important. We need to have all drivers on the streets trained to drive, knowledgeable about the road, and insured. What we have grave concerns about is the marking on the license. It is inconsistent with our shared values of dignity and respect. An undocumented immigrant has to attest to a state document that says we don't belong here. It endangers immigrants, it puts them into a situation in which if they were to present their license to somebody who rightly or wrongly believes they need to report that individual to Border Patrol, Border Patrol is fully authorized to act on that information. There's no protection for that person.

CAVANAUGH: But if there was no difference in the licenses between a citizen or a legal resident and someone here illegally, wouldn't the person here illegally be able to use that license in a way that's not correct for someone who's here illegally? In other words, in order to vote or to get employment in a way that is not authorized? What would be the -- why wouldn't that be just sort of a ticket to a pseudocitizenship?

GUERRERO: Immigration status has nothing to do with your ability to drive on the road. And that's why other states in this country issue licenses to all individuals regardless of their immigration status. It's about making sure that people on the road are knowledgeable about the rules of the road and have insurance. In this state, we used to issue licenses to all drivers. But when immigration became politicized about 20 years ago, that privilege was stripped from undocumented immigrants. It should be noted that licenses are not used in this country to vote. You have to prove independently of your license that you are eligible to vote. A license alone has never in any state in this union been a qualifier to be able to vote. Nor has it been a qualifier to be able to work. So it is a distraction to think about all the ways in which an unmarked license could be used to allow somebody to gain a benefit that they wouldn't otherwise have access to.

CAVANAUGH: Lorena, let me hear your response to the concerns she has.

GONZALES: I agree with them. This was a heartbreaking decision for a lot of us who voted for this bill O. The one hand, we had 17 years of history of trying to get this bill through, and finally got it to the point where the governor said if you do this, I'll sign it. In the legislature. We were told an hour beforehand, and got to go back to our offices for dinner, and I talked to Andrea and her staff, a number of advocates on both sides, and it was the phone calls I received from people who don't have that privilege to drive right now, and dreamers whose parents don't have the privilege to drive that really got to me. It is not perfect. And we said let us not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It's troubling. And there are protections in the bill we're hoping that are make it clear that somebody can't be indeeding on if they're here illegally. And we're looking at legislation we can introduce that will actually look at how these drivers when pulled over or stopped or utilizing their driving prejudice, how they're treated, and what happens to them. And that's something we've got to track to make sure that we don't want have some rogue police officers out there just calling up INS. And Andrea yesterday brought up a good point to me as well, and that's because we don't want people to think just because they have a driver's privilege or license that they can suddenly go through the checkpoints. You can't assume you're not going to get deported. So there are concerns for the immigrants, and this does a point where wee fed up. We're fed up with the fact that the government refuses and has not acted on comprehensive immigration reform. And we have as a state people who are contributing to our economy, our society who are not here legally, and we just need to make it safer for everybody. It's not a perfect bill, and we need to make it better.

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line, John from UC San Diego. Welcome to the program.

NEW SPEAKER: I think that it's a little bit of a waste of money. Really the driver's license is a permit to drive. That's what it is. It's not an illegal status document. [INAUDIBLE ]

NEW SPEAKER: I think that marking it, a legal from a nonlegal resident, it's kind of like -- [INAUDIBLE ]

CAVANAUGH: I think we've gotten your point, and the connection is not really very good. He basically is saying that the nonimmigration documents and the markings are ridiculous. And I would imagine, Andrea, you pretty much agree with what our caller said.

GUERRERO: That's right. Upon the markings tell us one thing. That we are treating somebody differently in a way that has nothing to do with the privilege we're extending them to drive.

CAVANAUGH: And California had licensing, everybody had licensing before 1993. Whether you were here legally or not.

GUERRERO: That's right. And we had no problems. There were no incidents of people using that license to try to vote or do other things with it. They simply used it to drive.

CAVANAUGH: And what about as Lorena points out, the Dreamers who are eligible under deferred action and state law not to be targeted for deportation? Are they the same licenses as legal residents?

GUERRERO: Undocumented young people who are eligible have protection from deportation. These marked licenses, we're asking people to come forward for the privilege of driving, without any protection from deportation.

CAVANAUGH: You make a very good point there, to distinguish the two. Bottom line, Andrea, what are you going to do? Are you going to recommend people get these licenses?

GUERRERO: I'm going to go outside and wrestle with Lorena and see who wins.


GUERRERO: No, I really appreciate the work she's doing in the assembly, and she's an advocate of all of our community, and that was a difficult position to be in with the governor, making that kind of promise with strings attached. We will be working with Lorena and other members of the assembly to improve this bill over time. We want to remove these markings. That's our end goal. We want to see other reforms as well, but we'll be monitoring incidents in which people are being victimized because of the markings. Even though the bill has protections against discrimination, it doesn't governor any actions of immigration enforcement agents. So we would hope that the community understands that there is some risks in getting this license. They should only use it for driving and insurance purposes. And they are putting themselves at risk if they show it to anyone else.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you sponsored legislation for people to get a license here. Is that law and this driver's license law intended to send a message to lawmakers in Washington about making some kind of move? Moving on immigration reform legislation?

GONZALES: I think there are a lot of us in the assembly, as well as the governor who said we're tired of waiting. And there are these individual situations, whether it's the parent who wants to drive their kid to school and go to work, or the Dreamer who wants to go to college, who once they brought could legally practice but for this prohibition. We actually had -- to really show the frustration on my bill about law students, we had ten Republicans vote for that. You would have never seen anywhere in this country ten Republicans go up on something like that. But there's massive frustration at the federal government that they just are not passing something.