Among the 108 bills that Governor Jerry Brown had to sign or veto by midnight September 30 was a short piece of legislation called Assembly Bill 2189. Although the bill does not include the word “immigrant,” it was the last step in a three-part process that held a remarkable outcome. In California, where the prospect of issuing drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants has been controversial for almost two decades, nearly half a million young immigrants will now be able to apply for a license.
Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, who co-wrote the bill, said the new legislation shows the state’s dedication to young people who have grown up in the United States but were brought into the country without proper documentation when they were small children.
“We felt like it was proper, given that there was willingness on the federal side, to just make a clear green light for all of these young people in the state of California.,” Skinner said.
Contrary to the impression some reports have given, the bill Brown signed was not the beginning of allowing drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants in California. In a press conference earlier this summer, President Obama unveiled an “exercise of discretion” memo called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) under which young immigrants who meet certain criteria may apply for a two-year work permit. DACA does not provide citizenship or permanent residency status, but rather a deferment from threat of deportation while the work permit is valid.
In some states, including California, the DMV declared that a DACA work permit, like any other, was one of the two acceptable forms of documentation to apply for a drivers’ license. A social security number, issued to successful DACA applicants, is also required for them to apply for a license in California. But other states, like Arizona, responded to the new policy by explicitly removing work permits that were issued through DACA, from their list of acceptable drivers license documentation. Governor Brown preempted such action here by signing AB 2189. In doing so, he turned regulatory language into state law.
California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) spokesperson Armando Botello said this new law simply ensures that the DMV cannot remove the work permit from its list of the documents a person may present when applying for a drivers license. “It’s already on the list of documents that were approved before,” he said. But this bill “sets it into law,” Botello said.
The Migration Policy Institute states that 460,000 currently undocumented immigrants could potentially be eligible for drivers’ licenses through DACA-issued work permit. Botello said the licenses will differ from those issued to U.S. citizens or permanent residences only in that they will expire in two years rather than the standard five. (A shorter expiration date “is not unusual,” Botello said—one might be issued in the case of an international college student, for example — and should not readily mark the license holder as a DACA immigrant.) The license cannot be renewed after two years unless a code is given by the DMV. And as with any other California drivers’ license, young immigrants can use their DMV identification for everything from air travel to entering a nightclub.
Some immigrants’ rights advocates and DACA-eligible people, like Blanca Vasquez, have said they although they support the new law, they also regard Brown’s signing of the drivers’ license bill as political cover while he vetoed other legislation even more important to their interests. A 23 year-old Oakland resident, Vasquez works for the Immigrant Youth Coalition in San Francisco, and had been a major proponent of the TRUST Act, a bill intended to deter the detention of immigrants in local jails. Vasquez said she believed the governor signed AB 2189 to deflect attention from his veto of the TRUST Act.
“In that sense he washed his hands and said, ‘There you go, I did something for the immigrant community,’” she said.
The TRUST Act would have dealt a blow to the Secure Communities program, which requires that local authorities who encounter undocumented immigrants, in the course of a routine police action, hold the immigrants in local jails for further action by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The vetoed TRUST Act would have reversed that requirement by making local prisons unavailable to such agreements. An exception would have been for detainees accused of a major felony.
Laura Polstein, an immigration attorney with the Central American Resource Center, said many organizations like hers spent the past two years campaigning for the TRUST Act, which Brown vetoed September 30. In his veto message, Brown said the definition of a major felony was too limited. For example, he noted that drug trafficking, child abuse and selling weapons were not included as serious crimes. All the same, Polstein said, she shares Vasquez’s disappointment of the veto; AB 2189 was important, but the TRUST Act “would have done so much more to open up the freedom of movement in California,” she said in a phone interview. “It would have limited the ability of the local government to process people for deportations.”
Neither DACA nor the new drivers license documentation law is a permanent resolution for young immigrants, both advocates observed. Should Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney win the election in November, he could reverse DACA as swiftly as the policy was first imposed. And DACA status itself is not intended to be permanent.
“The problem that some of these young people will face is that they will get drivers’ licenses, but those licenses will probably be time-limited,” Polstein said. “And if DACA expires, they’ll again be driving without a license.”