Advocates for immigrants are cheering Sacramento’s green light for undocumented youth to obtain drivers’ licenses, calling it a key to a thriving communities.
“This is obviously a step in the right direction and we want to see more of it,” said Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, incoming executive director at Carecen, a Mission District immigration and community rights organization.
“We’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of people coming to our office to find out if they’re eligible or not. It’s a good opportunity for our community,” she added. “Any resident in the Mission who gains a driver’s license gains peace of mind.”
The Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program enables immigrants who were illegally brought to the United States as children to apply for a work permit and avoid deportation for up to two years. That work permit can now be used as identification to acquire a California driver’s license.
Since 1993, California had denied driver’s licenses to people who lack legal status. That changed last Sunday, Sept. 30, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2189, making it possible for as many as 450,000 young immigrants in California to get driver’s licenses, if they are approved for DACA.
“Governor Brown believes the federal government should pursue comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship. President Obama has recognized the unique status of these students, and making them eligible to apply for driver’s licenses is an obvious next step,” Evan Westrup, a spokesperson for Brown, told Mission Local via email.
Last year, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released a study estimating that 2.6 million undocumented immigrants live in the state, 30,000 of them in San Francisco. PPIC estimates that 10 to 15 percent of Mission District residents are undocumented.
Just how many of these residents could be directly affected by DACA is unclear, since it applies only to immigrants who can prove they arrived in the United States before age 16, were younger than 31 in June of this year, have been living in the United States for at least five years, are in school or have graduated and have clean legal records.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that at least 4,500 San Francisco residents are eligible for DACA.
At Carecen, Dugan-Cuarta says, about half of the people interested in DACA — and the driver’s licenses that can come with it — live in San Francisco. The rest are from South Bay, she says, and need to drive in order to get to work or school.
The federal government left it up to the states to decide whether or not the work permits would be sufficient to obtain a driver’s license. State Sen. Mark Leno — who formerly represented part of the Mission District as the city’s District 8 supervisor — co-sponsored AB 2189. He says that about 2 million undocumented drivers are already on California’s roads.
“I’ve always supported eligibility for undocumented California residents to get licenses,” Leno said via phone. “For me it’s a question of public safety. Do we want 2 million untrained, untested and uninsured drivers, or do we want 2 million tested, trained and insured drivers?”
“This helps young people who are in school or employed. We want them to succeed,” Leno added. “It’s about fairness, equality and recognizing that the greater community thrives when individuals in the community thrive.”
Not everyone agrees with Leno’s support for the measure.
“All illegal immigrants are in violation of federal law. Period. End of discussion,” said Barbara Coe, founder and president of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, based in Huntington Beach. Coe spoke with Mission Local via phone.
“I don’t care when they were brought here. They are still in violation of the law,” Coe said, adding that she believes “illegal immigrants” commit disproportionately more crimes than do U.S. citizens. “A driver’s license helps them expedite selling drugs, robbing, raping and murdering American citizens,” Coe said. “These people absolutely do not deserve driver’s licenses.”
Leno said he thinks some people who oppose the measure want to punish undocumented people.
“I think there is an element of xenophobia to the opposition, an irrational fear,” he said. “We’re talking about people who came here undocumented as children. They are victims of circumstance that they have no documentation.”