When California lawmakers voted last October to let undocumented immigrants obtain driver's licenses, everyone knew its success lied in the devilish administrative details. What would the licenses look like and what would immigrants have to do to get them?
So far, those details have proved vexing.
Early last week, the federal government rejected the state's design for the licenses because they looked too much like those issued to citizens. A few days later new proposed state rules for obtaining them were assailed as being too restrictive and threatening to those who feared the process would be used to identify and deport undocumented immigrants.
The design issue could prove to be the harder impediment to get past. Or not. Some news sources refer to it as needing a tweak to pass muster with the feds. Others call it a “major snag.”
The federal Department of Homeland Security told the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) it wasn't enough to replace the “DL” (for driving license) on the license front with “DP” (driving privilege). The back of the card would have a more-detailed identifier that says, “This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes.”
A letter to the DMV from Homeland Security says federal law requires more: “The REAL ID Act and regulations include specific marking requirements for noncompliant licenses and identification cards to allow Federal officials to quickly determine whether a license or identification card may be accepted for official purposes.”
Democratic State Senator Ricardo Lara, chairman of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, told the New York Times there were other considerations. “We came up with this design, keeping in mind that immigrants continue to be very vulnerable, subject to discrimination, victims of crime and targets of scams. We don’t want to provide them with licenses that will open them up to further discrimination,” he said.
The fed letter suggested “a unique design or color.” North Carolina's license will be festooned with a dark pink strip across the front with “No Lawful Status” in red type. Illinois uses a distinctive purple strip across the top, instead of the usual red strip, with the phrase “Not valid for identification” prominently displayed out front.
State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg and others have asked Homeland Security to reconsider.
In the meantime, the state announced a few days later that it had come up with rules for what documentation people would have to provide to obtain the special license. The two-part process requires documentation like foreign passports and birth certificates to establish identity, and paperwork like utility bills and medical records to prove California residency.
There is still a debate over whether the documents request is too much or not enough. The deadline for implementation of the law is January 1, 2015.