California Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants!

By Attorneys Nancy E. Miller and Ben Loveman

Late last week California lawmakers passed, and Governor Brown signed into law, the Safe and Responsible Drivers Act which will allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses in California.  The law allows those without lawful status in the United States to use a federal individual taxpayer identification number plus other documentation deemed appropriate by the California Department of Motor Vehicles to apply for a license. The Department of Motor Vehicles may then issue a driver’s license to a person who cannot prove that he or she is authorized under federal law to be in the country—as long as they meet all other qualifications for having a license. 

Under prior law, applying for a license required applicants to prove that they were lawfully in the United States.  They had to provide, among other documents, a valid social security number.  This requirement was a problem for many people.  The bill passed with mounting pressure to give millions of people who are already living in California a way to get to and from work and school safely and legally.  Proponents of the bill argued that many of these people were already using the roads but were doing so without licenses and insurance and thus posed a risk to the public.  By providing licenses to this population the law will help to ensure that less uninsured motorists on the road. 

California Governor Jerry Brown has said “This bill will enable millions of people to get to work safely and legally. Hopefully, it will send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due.”  The passage of the bill did not come without debate as many legislators opposed affording this privilege to persons who are not authorized to be in the United Sates.  Ultimately, overcoming the opposition required compromises.  One such compromise is that drivers licenses issued under this new program will not be identical to regular California driver licenses.

The bill requires a special mark and notation on the licenses, the initials DP (driver’s privilege) instead of DL (driver’s license). The notation will indicate that the document "does not establish eligibility for employment or public benefit." Advocates for the bill had argued that inclusion of such notations might discourage use of the program out of fear by unauthorized immigrants of being openly identified as being in the United States without authorization in an official record.  “In a perfect world we would have no mark on our driver’s license," said Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens). But, he added, "there are hardworking immigrants who need driver’s licenses to do the basic things many of us take for granted."

The driver’s license measure will significantly expand the number of unauthorized immigrants in California with access to driving privileges.  Many of California’s young unauthorized immigrants were able to obtain driving privileges as a result of last years Deferred Action initiative known as DACA.  California’s new law will not be the limited to the young but instead will cover unauthorized immigrants of any age.  Undocumented Californian’s who do take advantage of the program should remember though that unlike DACA having a driver’s license does not provide protection against deportation or provide any immigration benefit.  For many though having the legal right to use the roads will help to avoid situations which can often lead to deportation such as being pulled over and cited for driving without a license or other traffic violations.

California will join nine other states and the District of Columbia in allowing undocumented immigrant to obtain driver’s licenses.  Those seeking to take advantage of this new provision should remember that obtaining a California Driver’s License does not mean that you obtain valid immigration status in the United States.