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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

California Delegates Ask Feds To Accept Driver’s License Design For Undocumented Immigrants

Congressman Juan Vargas is urging the federal government to approve California’s plans to offer a new driver’s license for people living in the state without legal immigration status.

At issue is whether the chosen design makes it look too similar to a regular state license.

The Department of Homeland Security recently told the California Department of Motor Vehicles that the proposed design of the new license didn’t satisfy the requirements of the REAL ID Act. That federal law, passed in 2005, sets standards for state-issued identification cards with the goal of preventing fraudulent use by terrorists.

In response to DHS, Congressman Vargas and 18 other California delegates sent a letter urging Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to approve the design as proposed.

In a news release, Vargas said the design “not only complies with the REAL ID Act of 2005, but also protects immigrants from discrimination and increases road safety.”

The California legislature approved the driver’s license intended for use by undocumented immigrants last year, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law. The law specifies that the new driver’s licenses would be distinguishable from regular California driver’s licenses by a “recognizable feature on the front of the card, such as the letters ‘DP’ instead of, and in the same font size as, the letters 'DL,’ with no other distinguishable feature.”

The law also requires the license to bear a notice stating that it is not acceptable for official federal purposes, such as voting or employment.

The design specifications of the license have been debated for years among state legislators and immigrant advocacy groups, with the latter concerned that a special driver’s license for the undocumented could lead to discrimination.

Immigrants without legal status fear that carrying an ID that clearly labels them as undocumented could get them deported.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Ana Benitez, an undocumented immigrant living in San Diego said of the new licenses.

“We want a license so that all drivers can follow California rules, but we don’t want it to carry a mark,” Benitez said. The 44-year-old cook from Oaxaca, Mexico said she feared a distinctive license would expose undocumented drivers to police officers who might report their immigration status to federal officials.

Despite such fears, the law implementing the new driver’s license prohibits them from being used to determine a driver’s citizenship or immigration status.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing driver’s licenses for immigrants without legal status.

California DMV spokesperson Jessica Gonzalez said the department was discouraged by the federal government’s rejection of the proposed license, but would continue to work with state officials and affected communities to design a license that complies with federal law.

Gonzalez said the state still plans to start offering the new licenses by Jan. 1, as required by the law. She said the DMV is working to establish four new centers for processing drivers’ applications, and hiring new employees.

California officials estimate that more than 1 million people could apply for the new licenses.

On Friday, the DMV issued proposed regulations for the application process. Applicants could present an approved foreign-issued ID card as proof of identity. Lacking that, they could present a school document, marriage license, income tax return or various other documents that would be reviewed by the DMV to determine whether the person’s ID could be verified.

The proposed regulations are open for public comment until June 23.

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