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
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT