20 Years WITHOUT a DRIVER’S LICENSE

For people interested in understanding this issue that impacts millions of people in California: It all started in 1993.

(California, USA)  – Taking away the access to driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and other drivers in California in 1993, may have been as much as a well-intended move against massive, uncontrolled immigration as a bias against Latinos living and working in the United States including people unauthorized to stay in this country: back then called “illegal aliens,” and now more and more referred to as “undocumented immigrants.”

DRIVER’S LICENSES, an issue that at its core pertains to ensuring that anybody driving a motorized car on the highways and streets across the Golden State has passed driving tests –therefore he or she knows how to drive, and possesses car insurance, turned political.

On March 5, 1993, State senator Alfred Alquist (D), introduced SB 976, a measure requiring the Department of Motor Vehicles to require every applicant for a driver’s license or identification card to produce documentation establishing the applicant’s citizenship or residence status. The proposed measure prohibited the DMV from doing it otherwise, and said that anybody helping applicants making false claims would be committing a misdemeanor.

It was racist, anti-Latino, anti-immigrant, and biased,” says former state senator Martha Escutia (D). “It was horrible when it passed; it was an attack on our immigrant community, and a defeat to some of us trying to be their voice,” Escutia says with great emotion, adding “For me, it was the worst defeat I ever had as legislator, and I became forceful and defensive.”

What is worst is that, although Republican legislators spearheaded and supported the anti-immigrant measure, also many Democrat legislators also supported it,” Escutia said.

Escutia added that she believes some legislators voted in favor of SB976, thinking that by doing it so, they were preventing worst measures being introduced. “They were fooled. Proposition187 was next.

Sponsors of SB976 argued, according to the legislative analysis, that this measure would “keep illegal aliens off the roads, reduce fraud and act as a deterrent to illegal immigration.” they also y contended that it would “favorably impact the uninsured driver problem.”

Opponents contended that this bill would have a negative effect on persons legally authorized to be in the US, like some Salvadorians under Temporary Protected Status, nonimmigrant foreign students, foreign professionals and workers possessing nonimmigrant visas, and that they could not drive if this bill were to pass. Furthermore, opponents argued that SB976 “would not curtail illegal aliens from driving.

The DMV opposed SB976 for its own reasons.  “It would terminate the  driver’s license renewal-by-mail program and increase state costs. “

At the end, the SB976 sponsors won. Members of both, the Assembly and the Senate approved it by 57 in favor and 15 against it. Assembly-member Louis Caldera (D) a son of Mexican immigrants from Texas, gave the third read, according to the records.

On October 3, 1993, governor Pete Wilson (R) signed it into law.

Other professionals who have also closely followed the driver’s license issue think that the new law, which became effective on January 1, 1994, reflected the wants and opinions of the general population across political parties, including some Latinos.

The view of the public back then was that immigrants were doing something very wrong by not having legal residence,” says Leo Lacayo, a Republican, Hispanic analyst.

It was a wrong sense of justice. They saw it as a crime. The public did not understand that immigrants were staying to work and that through their work they were contributing to the economy.”

In this blogger’s opinion, what the public did not see –or perhaps did not want to see, nor the legislators or community leaders and groups who helped approved it or voted in favor, was this:

  • That for the next 20 years, the lives of millions of people would be impacted in ways that only those suffering those consequences would know. That their cars would be taken from them, that high monetary fees would have to be paid to entities who surely profited from it in ways that any member of an ethics commission or human rights foundation would question, and that many families would be separated, parents deported, and youth and adults incarcerated because they could not present a driver’s license in California.

Yet, for the last 20 years, millions of people have been driving without a license in California. It is a fact, whether the reader makes judgments or feels empathy towards them, the undocumented.

On October 3, 2013, it will be 20 years since the signing of a measure that, simply said, prohibited driving rights for undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, current California governor Jerry Brown (D) has until October 13 to sign AB60, the measure that would allow access to driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, but under certain conditions. Governor Brown has assured he will sign it.

It has been 20 years, and many millions.


[Article#2 of many, by Lupita Peimbert] –
Lupita is a free-lance journalist who has covered the ups and downs of the driver’s license bill since 1998.