Undocumented immigrants win access to driver’s licenses in California

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Thursday granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, marking a dramatic shift in public opinion – and Brown’s own view – of a measure that chafed the state’s last Democratic governor and remained impassable for another decade.

Ten years after Arnold Schwarzenegger used opposition to a driver’s license bill to his advantage in the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, Brown said “the power of this force of immigrants is so strong, so heavy, that even the politicians can’t ignore it anymore.”

The legislation is the latest in a series of victories for undocumented immigrants in California. Brown signed a bill in 2011 allowing undocumented immigrant college students to receive public financial aid, and he approved a measure last year making driver’s licenses available to some undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and, under federal rules, are allowed to work here.

Before this year, however, broader legislation to make driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants hung out of reach.

In the 2003 recall election, after which Schwarzenegger repealed a driver’s license measure signed by Davis before it took effect, exit polling showed 70percent of voters opposed the legislation. Schwarzenegger would go on to veto several more versions of the bill, and Brown, a Democrat, suggested during the 2010 campaign that he might follow his Republican predecessor’s example.

At a debate in Fresno just three years ago, Brown called for comprehensive immigration changes but spoke against driver’s license legislation. He called it a “little piecemeal” solution that “sends the wrong signal.”

On Thursday, Brown signed the bill in Los Angeles, the state’s largest media market, then flew to Fresno to promote it. Of the hundreds of supporters on a lawn at Fresno City College, many were college or high school students who had no recollection of old battles over the bill.

They have felt the issue come to a head, however, with the recent focus on immigration policy in Washington.

At his high school in Salinas, said Oscar Garcia, a 17-year-old student who traveled to Fresno with his father, “everybody gets all worried” when developments in Congress make immigration changes seem unlikely.

Brown said last month that he had changed his mind about immigrant driver’s licenses because of “foot-dragging on the part of Congress and not creating immigration reform.”

The evolution of his position also corresponded with a change in public opinion. It was only this year that a driver’s license bill drew majority support for the first time among California’s registered voters, according to the nonpartisan Field Poll..

“(Brown) has great political instincts,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo, a former state lawmaker who carried driver’s license bills repeatedly while in the Legislature. “He doesn’t go beyond what the public’s willing to do.”

Nevertheless, Cedillo said, “He’s been courageous. ... This is really, really big.”

The legislation Brown signed Thursday reverses a 20-year-old policy in California, restoring the ability of undocumented immigrants to drive legally after Republican Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation outlawing the practice in 1993.

Assembly Bill 60, by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants by Jan. 1, 2015. The license must include a mark distinguishing it from a regular license, such as the letters “DP,” for driving privilege, instead of “DL,” for driver’s license.

The license also is required to include a notice that it is only for driving purposes and does not establish eligibility to register to vote or obtain employment or public benefits.

Immigrant advocates say driver’s licenses will protect undocumented immigrants from fines and having their cars impounded on routine traffic stops, while reducing the number of motorists who are untrained, untested and uninsured.

Most Republicans in the Legislature voted against the measure. Opponents say it will reward noncitizens for entering the country illegally and will encourage illegal immigration.

According to a legislative analysis, 1.4million undocumented immigrants could seek licenses over three years.

In a nod to the impact of California’s growing Latino population on public sentiment about the bill, Alejo told the crowd in Fresno that the legislation’s passage is a “recognition that immigrants are driving California forward, that immigrants and California are leading the way in terms of policies and laws that integrate immigrants and help improve the lives of their families, as well.”

In a Field Poll in February, registered voters supported making driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants 52percent to 43percent.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll, said proponents gained momentum as debate over immigration changes picked up in the U.S. Senate.

“Even though we haven’t seen any legislation at the federal level,” DiCamillo said, “the impetus was there, and the activists were more aroused.”

While the crowd cheered Brown in Fresno, Garry South, a Democratic strategist who advised Davis, issued a tweet offering “kudos to Jerry Brown.”

“Public sentiment has clearly shifted dramatically,” South said. “Not just in the last 10 years, but in the last three or four years on a whole range of issues.”