Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Give undocumented immigrants driver's licenses

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
September 17, 2013 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
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
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1022 GMT (1822 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
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.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT