Should Undocumented Immigrants Get Drivers Licenses?

Chief Charlie Beck said in comments to the Los Angeles Times he supports the move to improve traffic safety

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Public safety officials and local advocates are discussing whether undocumented immigrants should be given drivers licenses to keep roads safer. Diana Guevara interviewed US Attorney Pete Nunez and Andrea Guerrero for two perspectives on the debate. (Published Friday, Feb 24, 2012)

    Public safety officials and local leaders in Southern California are discussing one way of improving roadway safety: allowing illegal immigrants to apply for drivers licenses.

    On Thursday, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said he supports such a plan. The San Diego Police and Sheriff's Departments did not say whether or not they supported it, but they would enforce it if becomes a law.

    "I think it's important that the state look at licensing undocumented immigrants," Beck said during a media event on Thursday. "It's a public safety issue. People that are licensed are more likely to have insurance, more likely to report accidents, more likely to have vehicles that are registered to them."

    Beck said the state has failed to reduce the number of illegal immigrants driving without a license.

    However former US Attorney and San Diegan Pete Nunez said it would be another pathway to citizenship with a political agenda.

    "What they should be doing is arresting illegal aliens or at least be working with federal agents to identify, locate, arrest and deport those that are in the country illegally that's what we used to do," Nunez said.

    Even one local advocate says she is critical of the licensing because it would require undocumented immigrants to fill out applications similar to a citizenship form.

    "It's important that the drivers license is not a scarlet letter meaning that it's not an indicator of status legal status," said Andrea Guerrero of the Equality Alliance of San Diego County.

    The chief concern is safety on the road by forcing all drivers to take the rigorous testing to get a license, and the ability of police to identify the people they encounter, Beck said.

    "It doesn't make any sense to me. And we could increase safety on the roads," he said. "When you make things illegal, you cause a lot of other things by chain reaction."

    One type of crime that Beck believes would decrease is hit-and-run accidents, because illegal immigrant drivers wouldn't have to fear being caught without a license at the scene of such accidents, he said.

    Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he, too, would support such an initiave, but with conditions, according to the Los Angeles Times.

    Currently, those caught driving without a valid license, including those who have had their licenses suspended or revoked, can have their cars impounded for up to 30 days.

    Towing and impound charges often top $1,000, and advocates for the poor and immigrants said the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

    "What chief Beck should be doing is enforcing the law, making it clear to people that if we catch you driving without a license there are going to be consequences, its going to hurt. That’s the way you enforce all laws and illegal aliens shouldn’t be the exception," said Ira Mehleman with the Foundation for American Immigration Reform.

    Beck said licenses issued to illegal immigrants should be different than regular ones, such as a provisional license or a non-resident license.

    Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said that may not be such a conflicting idea, and human rights advocates said they would support that contingency.

    "People can still have a position against illegal immigration and still believe you need a license to be on the streets," Villaraigosa said.

    The Associated Press contributed to this story.