LA Times: California grows up about immigrant driver's licenses

October 04, 2013

By: Michael Hiltzik

It isn't often that someone can overturn two decades of stupidity with a stroke of a pen. California Gov. Jerry Brown achieved that distinction this week when he signed a law allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses.

In doing so, he rectified a historic injustice. If that's not enough for you, consider that he saved us all money.

On my insurance policy, the charge for uninsured motorist coverage accounts for 10% of the premium. As I wrote last year, even if you can't put your finger on the prevalence of unlicensed immigrants behind the wheel, it's obvious that the percentage of them carrying valid auto insurance is fairly close to zero. Give them the right to apply for a driving license, and the number of uninsured motorists on the road is sure to come down.

Licensing drivers who couldn't prove their legal status had been the rule for years and years in California, until 1993, when the legislature mandated that applicants prove they were in the country legally. That was during a dark time, when the state was overcome by a fit of immigrant-bashing that also yielded the infamous Proposition 187.

Gov. Gray Davis signed a law reversing the rule in 2003, when he was fighting for his political life and needed Latino support to beat the recall campaign. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that master of political cynicism, pledged to reverse Davis' action if he was elected and promptly got the Legislature to do so upon taking office.

The argument for restricting licenses always has been partially fearful, partially punitive. It was said that terrorists could use liberal standards to sneak around the country, causing mayhem. It was also said that these people are in the country illegally -- why give them the privilege of driving?

The first concern has been dealt with in the new law by requiring close scrutiny of the proofs of identity that applicants will be able to use as alternatives to Social Security numbers. (The DMV may need more than a year to set standards.)

The second concern was always nonsensical. Licenses aren't just handed over; the applicants have to pass the same driving tests as anyone else. When Don Rosenberg, an opponent of the law, complains that it doesn't require any training to make sure the new drivers are safe, what's he talking about? The one thing we know about undocumented immigrants who drive without a license is that they're not safe.

Almost every Californian knows the facts about the sizable role that undocumented workers play in our economy. The old rule welcomed them to clean our homes and pick our crops; we just put our collective foot down at allowing them to drive to get there. (And we paid more for insurance as part of the deal.)

At the signing ceremony this week, Brown declared that "the rest of this country will have to stand up and take notice" at California's action. It's a measure of how long we've been determined to spite ourselves by making our roads less safe that he's wrong: 10 other states beat California to it, seven of them this year alone.


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