Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Give undocumented immigrants driver's licenses

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 11:48 AM EDT, Tue September 17, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • California will soon provide driver's license to illegal immigrants
  • Ruben Navarrette: The Golden State is usually a trendsetter but fell behind on this issue
  • He says giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants with restricted use benefits all
  • Navarrette: The undocumented would rather have a driver's license so they can work

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

(CNN) -- California has long been a trendsetter. But on the issue of giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, it fell behind other states. After what seems like forever, it is poised to become the 10th state, along with the District of Columbia, to make this concession.

California is ready to jump on the driver's license bandwagon after many years of setbacks, betrayals and disappointments for advocates of the cause. Sometimes, it feels like we have been talking about doing this in the Golden State since before the automobile was invented.

In fact, while more than two dozen states have debated the issue in recent years, California was one of the first states to consider giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. It could have set the trend, instead of letting nine states -- and the District of Columbia -- get ahead of it.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Much of the credit for that early start belongs to persistent Democratic State Sen. Gil Cedillo who has, since 1998, tried eight times to get bills passed in the legislature that would grant driving privileges to the undocumented. Over the years, Cedillo's driver's license bills have been vetoed by Republican and Democratic governors alike.

As time went on, it became clear what kind of bill would be most likely to succeed -- one with some critical adjustments making clear that undocumented immigrants would be able to use the licenses only for driving and not for identification to obtain employment or board airplanes, or open bank accounts or obtain public benefits and other privileges.

That was a game changer. Other states, such as Utah and North Carolina, also attached special language to driver's license bills. Often, it was something like: "Not for Identification." And it was stamped right on the license.

Fair enough. A lot of Americans don't like the idea that undociumented immigrants could carry in their wallets a driver's license identical to theirs. This solves that problem.

So then Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo, with Cedillo's blessing, introduced AB60 granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants provided the licenses have special language stamped on them stating that the ID is only good for driving and not for anything else. Last week, both houses of the California legislature approved the bill. And Gov. Jerry Brown issued a statement indicating he would sign it.

About 2 million people in California are expected to qualify for driver's licenses, if the bill becomes law. While some activists on the left complain that the language on the license amount to a "scarlet letter" that will encourage profiling and discrimination, other advocates are more practical and realize that driver's licenses of any kind are an important step that could make life much easier for a good many people.

That's why I support this bill. It will allow drivers to get auto insurance and make it less likely that they will flee the scene of an accident. It represents a fair compromise that gives undocumented immigrants what they need, without giving away the store and blurring the line between immigrants and natives. Lastly, the enthusiasm with which people are reacting to the law highlights what many of us have been saying for a while -- that, despite the nonsense you hear out of Washington, the undocumented would rather have a driver's license so they can get to work than citizenship and the right to vote.

This law will also cut down on abuse by making it harder for towns and cities to confiscate vehicles at increasingly popular driver's license checkpoints. Municipalities currently make money on the towing fees, and, if the car is never picked up, on the sale of the vehicle at auction. In some places, we're talking about several hundred cars per month. It generates lots of revenue for the localities, and wreaks havoc on the lives of hard-working people who are just trying to get from point A to point B to support their families.

This is happening more often in California as local budgets go into the red. Just because people complain about undocumented immigrants doesn't mean that they aren't eager to make money off them. It happens a little at a time, so the undocumented immigrants don't feel the local officials' hands in their pockets. This law could help put an end to it.

Giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants -- with restricted use, "scarlet letter" and all -- is an idea whose time has finally arrived. It just took California a little longer than usual to catch up to it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT