Continuing Controversy Over Driver's Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants

March 6, 2012

A recent Mercury News article reported a new push for driver's licenses for California's undocumented immigrants. By now, most Californians are familiar with the multiple proposed bills to obtain driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants in the state. Most people feel strongly about the issue one way or another. No matter what side of the debate, however, many Silicon Valley immigration lawyers know that the bill addresses only a small part of larger immigration concerns.

Democratic Assemblyman Gil Cedillo has authored numerous bills proposing granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants since 1998. In 2002, Governor Gray Davis signed a bill into law to that end, but Governor Schwarzenegger repealed it before it went into effect. Recently, however, with the passage of the Dream Act, which grants some undocumented college students access to financial aid, proponents of a bill giving undocumented immigrants driver's licenses see renewed hope. The bill has also picked up steam with the endorsement of Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck in a Los Angeles Times article last week.

There are several arguments for and against a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a California driver's license. Supporters of the bill ensure that these drivers' licenses will not be valid for identification purposes such as registering to vote, boarding an airplane, or opening a bank account. Proponents support making the licenses a different color and stress that they are not meant to grant undocumented immigrants rights enjoyed by US citizens or others who are in the country legally.

Proponents also stress that passage of the bill would mean safer roads for everyone. Some estimates suggest that nearly 10% of California drivers are uninsured and unlicensed. According to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, "unlicensed drivers are almost five times more likely to be in a fatal crash." Supporters of the bill argue that allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses would ensure that they are aware of the traffic laws and that they were able to pass a basic road test.

Many California immigration attorneys suggest that granting undocumented immigrants a driver's license may also make it easier to obtain auto insurance, thereby lowering uninsured rates. There may be some evidence to back up these claims. Two other states, New Mexico and Utah, allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. In New Mexico, the uninsured rate fell by 23% in the five years following the passage of the bill. In Utah the rate fell by 10% during the same time span.

Since 1998, any bill proposing granting driver's licenses to immigrants has faced staunch opposition. Republican Assemblyman Jim Nielsen is quoted as saying that the bill would "legitimize a fundamentally illegal act," and that it would send the wrong message. Others argue that the bill would make it easier for terrorists to obtain a driver's license.

Many Silicon Valley immigration attorneys understand that it is difficult to argue that not being able to obtain a license is a deterrent to illegal immigration. Similarly, denying these individuals a license is not likely to stop them from driving, because of the need to go to work and take their children to and from school. However, the granting of driver's licenses does not address any of the larger immigration reform issues and concerns affecting those who are working through the legal immigration processes.