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 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT