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. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) -- When it comes to giving driver's license to illegal immigrants, California has spent nearly two decades embroiled in a never-ending saga.
Last year, in what appeared to be the final chapter, the state legislature passed, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed, a bill making California the 10th state in the country to allow illegal immigrants to receive driver's license. Even in a dark blue state, that legislation had been a long time coming. Previous bills dating back to 1998 had been vetoed not just by Republican governors but also Democratic ones.
The catch: the licenses would have to bear some distinguishing mark on them to ensure that they're used only for driving and not identification to obtain employment or board airplanes, or open bank accounts or obtain public benefits. This is what concerns many Americans, along with the irritant that the undocumented would be carrying around a type of ID that is identical to those of U.S. citizens.
Immigration activists didn't like this idea, likening it to a "Scarlet Letter." But I signed on to what I thought was a reasonable compromise that could do a lot of good for a lot of people. For a brief moment, it looked like the drama was over, and that common sense had prevailed.
This story is not over. Now California has to do battle with an entity that, when the issue turns to immigration, often runs low on common sense: the Obama administration. Partly to appease blue-collar workers who fear competition from immigrants and don't relish the idea of millions of them re-entering the workforce with legal status, the administration is a lot tougher on illegal immigration than many Republicans have long insisted.
The administration has been in office for more than five years, but it has not been able to do much on immigration reform. During this time, the Obama administration has given the undocumented a one-way passage to their home countries, with nearly 2 million deportations.
Now the administration is getting involved with California over -- of all the petty things -- the state's proposed design of the new driver's license for the undocumented.
The trouble started when officials in California tried to get cute by deciding that they could put the required language about how the license were not for identification purposes on the back of the license instead of on the front. Otherwise, the document would look just like the ones held by U.S. citizens.
Last week, in a letter to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, officials with the Department of Homeland Security wrote that the state needs to put the disclaimer on the front of the license and also use "a unique design or color" to distinguish these special licenses from documents carried by U.S. citizens.
Many of the immigrant activist groups that initially opposed as a "Scarlet Letter" any kind of distinguishing language on a driver's license for the undocumented seem to be fine with the idea of putting this language on the back. What they're not fine with is the meddling by the Obama administration. They're demanding that the state's congressional delegation pressure the administration to butt out, so the licenses can be issued.
The activists are right. Deciding who gets a driver's license, and what the license looks like, are state matters. The administration needs to back off. If it needs something to do, it can ease up on the deportations. The White House has said that it supports the Senate immigration bill that was passed last year. Yet, since that legislation -- which doubles the size of the Border Patrol to 40,000 agents, builds more border fencing and would only legalize an estimated half of the undocumented population -- doesn't make a real dent, activists should demand better.
I don't think the administration is capable of doing better. Its immigration record is atrocious. A big part of the problem is the Department of Homeland Security, which seems confused about its mission. When dealing with deportations, over which it has complete jurisdiction, the department tries to deny the power it has. But when the issue is driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, it makes a grab for power that belongs somewhere else.
Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion
Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion