Undocumented Immigrants Apply for Driver’s Licenses in California

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Immigrants brave cold weather as they line up outside a Department of Motor Vehicles office to register for drivers licenses, Stanton, Calif., Jan. 2, 2015.
Immigrants brave cold weather as they line up outside a Department of Motor Vehicles office to register for drivers licenses, Stanton, Calif., Jan. 2, 2015.

By Elizabeth Lee – LOS ANGELES— The line at the driver’s license office in Los Angeles is so long it goes out the front door and wrapa around the building. But many of the people waiting don’t mind, including Christian Alvarado.

“It is so exciting,” he says. “For a long time I have been waiting for a license.”


Originally from El Salvador, Alvarado, an undocumented immigrant, works as a gardener. After eight years in the United States, today is the first time he has been able to apply for a California driver’s license.

Under a state law, more than a million undocumented immigrants are expected to apply for driver’s licenses. While California isn’t the first U.S. state to pass such a law, it is home to the largest number of undocumented immigrants in the country.

For Alvarado, proving his residency, passing a vision test and completing a written driving exam and road test, means he can finally drive without constant fear.

“You are always afraid by the police,” he says, explaining that getting caught driving without a licesne once cost him $800. “They take your car and you have to pay a lot of money to get back your car.”

“You live with fear sometimes, [but] you need to [drive],” says Jaime Rodriguez, who felt he had no choice because he has a job and a family to support. “You need to live.”

Since the beginning of the year when the law went into effect, tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants have applied for a license.

Some fear remains

While the new law alleviates fears for many undocumented immigrants for whom driving is essential, it also creates new fears for fellow undocumented immigrants who are concerned that providing personal information to a government agency could increase their chances of facing deportation.

But California Department of Motor Vehicle spokesman Armando Botello says people should not worry.

“California DMV does not share our data file with the authorities,” he said. “[We will share information] only in the case of a specific case when somebody is the suspect or being investigated in relation to a felony and that has to be a very specific person and it has to be a request from the authorities.”

While the new licenses look just like regular ones, there is one exception: the top right corner says “Federal Limits Apply.” That means the license cannot be used to board an airplane or enter a federal building.

According to Ana Garcia of the Central American Resource Center, some immigrants have yet another concern.

“There is also another fear that they are going to be treated differently or they are going to be discriminated against or that or just a regular police officer can see that they are are undocumented and call immigration themselves,” she said.

Public opinion shifting

Although civil rights groups say discriminating against holders of the new licenses is illegal, not everyone favors the new law.

“The argument against the driver’s license bill for years and years now has been that it rewards illegal behavior,” said University of Southern California political scientist Dan Schnur.

But public opinion in California, he says, has shifted in favor of undocumented immigrants.

“Young white voters, young Caucasians are overwhelmingly in favor of broader immigration reform [and] this [driver’s license] issue … simply because they grew up in a much different type of society, a much more multicultural society than their parents and grandparents did,” he said.

Schnur said he believes the changes in attitude and laws on immigration will spread to the rest of the country over time.





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