California to allow driver's licenses for illegal immigrants

In promising to sign the bill allowing illegal immigrants driver's licenses, California Gov. Brown said he hoped it would 'send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due.'

Rich Pedroncelli/ AP Photo
Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville (left) is congratulated by Senators Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens (right) and Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, after the Senate approved Alejo's immigrant driver's license bill at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013.

Reversing course, California Gov. Jerry Brown said early Friday he would sign a bill into law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain a state driver’s license.

After last-minute changes to Assembly Bill 60 (AB-60), the California Senate and Assembly voted to pass the bill late Thursday night.  

“This bill will enable millions of people to get to work safely and legally,” Governor Brown said in a statement issued after midnight following the passage of AB-60. “Hopefully it will send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due."

California has the largest immigrant population in the United States, and a recent study from the University of California's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration estimates that about 7 percent of California residents – more than 2.6 million people – are in the country illegally. 

Nine states and the District of Columbia currently issue illegal immigrants driver's licenses. Federal law requires that the licenses clearly indicate that the driver is undocumented. 

Under AB-60, the licenses would have the initials DP (driver's privilege), rather than DL (driver's license), and would state that the document "does not establish eligibility for employment or public benefit." California's Department of Motor Vehicles will determine what type of documentation will be required to obtain a driver's license.

Some undocumented residents are already eligible for licenses under California state law, if they qualify for temporary federal work permits.

The original bill as proposed by Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D) of Watsonville would have granted licenses to immigrants who could prove they paid taxes or worked in the United States. However, Mr. Alejo conceded this point late Thursday, reassuring Brown that California would adhere to federal procedures for granting licenses to illegal immigrants and subsequently winning the governor's backing.

Brown's support helped propel the bill through the California Legislature.

"In a perfect world we would have no mark on our driver's license," said California Sen. Ricardo Lara (D) of Bell Gardens as reported in the LA Times. But, he added, "there are hardworking immigrants who need driver's licenses to do the basic things many of us take for granted."

A bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to become lawyers also made it through the California legislature on Thursday. 

Earlier in the week, Republican Sen. Anthony Cannella, another of the AB-60's supporters in the California Senate, called on Republicans in Congress to pass broader immigration reform, Reuters reported. A group of 16 California Republican state senators joined a national push to demand a path to citizenship in the United States for illegal immigrants.

A landmark plan for immigration overhaul passed through the US Senate in June, but will face extreme difficulty getting through Congress. The legislation would create a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

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