“Dreamers” to Get Driver Licenses Under New California Law

AB 2189 will affect some 350,000 young, undocumented immigrants

A bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown late Sunday will benefit the same group of young undocumented immigrants targeted by President Barack Obama's recent reforms: generally educated residents with no significant criminal record who were brought to the United States as children.

Assembly Bill 2189, signed into law by Brown, will allow some undocumented Californians between ages 16 and 31 to obtain driver licenses using paperwork issued by Obama's work permit program.

The bill's author, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles, has worked for years to get immigrants the right to drive legally in California, arguing it will ensure they're better drivers because they'll have been tested, and will make it more likely they will obtain car insurance.

Those arguments apparently convinced some Republicans to support the bill. Cedillo said in a statement that California was the first state to issue driver licenses for the group helped by the federal work permit program.

"It is a victory for those who were brought here through no choice of their own, played by the rules, and are only asking to be included in and contribute to American society," Cedillo said.

He called the beneficiaries "dream students," a reference to the federal DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal status for some young undocumented immigrants.

The new California law applies to about 350,000 California residents, Cedillo has said.

Previous versions of bills that would have granted driver licenses to California's undocumented immigrants have been repeatedly vetoed.

Cedillo's current bill specifies that documentation from the new federal program would be sufficient proof for license applicants "that their presence in the United States is authorized under federal law." 

Those eligible must currently be in school, have graduated from high school or have been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or Armed Forces. They must have arrived in the country before they were 16 -- and have been under 31 as of June 15. And they must not have been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor: or three or more misdemeanors, among other requirements.

Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals work permit program was announced in August. That program allows those who meet the qualifications to apply for a two-year deferral of deportation that would allow them to work legally in the meantime.

"President Obama has recognized the unique status of these students, and making them eligible to apply for driver licenses is an obvious next step," Brown spokesman Gil Duran told the Associated Press.

The Department of Motor Vehicles had previously said in August that Deferred Action participants would be eligible for driver licenses, but had said additional legislation or regulation might be needed to make the change. Cedillo's bill codified the change.

At the same time as Brown signed the Cedillo bill into law, he vetoed the so-called "Anti-Arizona" bill that also had been favored by immigrants' rights activists. Assembly Bill 1081 would have protected illegal immigrants from deportation if they committed minor infractions.

In his veto message (PDF), Brown said the bill was "fatally flawed because it omits many serious crimes" from a list of offenses that would require local law enforcement to hand over arrested suspects to federal immigration authorities.

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