Reactions to California's New Law that Allows Residents to Get Drivers’ Licenses Regardless of Immigration Status

Do you remember the feeling of getting in the car after you passed your first driving test? Where did you go on your first drive alone? Who did you take with you? For many of us, feeling excited and elated was a given. What was less expected, but perhaps far more profound, was a sense of freedom. For one group of newly licensed drivers in California, the driver’s license has come to mean a freedom from fear altogether. 
 
Since January 1, 2015, undocumented immigrants have been lining up to apply for California drivers’ licenses. Under California’s new Safe and Responsible Driver Act (AB60), signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2013, California residents can get drivers’ licenses regardless of their immigration status. The law has changed hundreds of lives.The license, said one immigrant, means that “I am more at peace while driving. I don't panic when I see a police officer. I feel that I am part of this society.”
 
In Silicon Valley, where almost a third of our residents are immigrants, local legal services organizations have led the charge to inform and prepare immigrants for the licensing process. SVCF recently partnered with several of those groups to gather stories about how the process was going, and what it has meant to our region’s immigrants. Here is a bit of what we heard: 
  • "Now my wife and I can drive our son to daycare without risking getting in trouble in front of him.”
  • “I have family that I haven´t seen in years in Tracy, Los Angeles and the Central Valley. I only drive locally. With an AB60 license I will have more freedom to travel outside of San José to visit family.” 
  • “Having an AB60 license also means that I can drive wherever I want. Before, I didn't want to go too far, like Santa Cruz or LA, out of fear that I would get stopped on the road. When my kids asked why we couldn't go, I made excuses and said I was busy. But now I can take my kids to see the rest of California without excuses or fear. I'm very excited for my first big road trip.”
AB60 isn’t the first time that California’s immigrants have hit the road. Until 1994, all immigrants had access to California licenses. When these licenses were revoked nearly 20 years ago, undocumented immigrants had no choice but to go on with their daily lives. Unfortunately, that also meant opening themselves up to arrests, losing their cars to impoundment, or even deportation. 
 
Prior to the implementation of AB60, getting on the road was an act of courage every day. In our story collection project, SVCF heard about immigrants who had their cars impounded, who refused to drive on highways, and who panicked at the sight of a police officer because they were driving without a license. One person said: “It is more worrisome and scary to drive without a license than to show up at the DMV to obtain one.” 
 
AB60 has been a critical step in integrating our region’s undocumented immigrants. All immigrants are woven into the fabric of the United States and many of the estimated 2 million undocumented immigrants in California (7 percent of the total population) are contributing to our society. Without them, the state would lose $164.2 billion in economic activity and over 700,000 jobs. The new drivers’ licenses have made it easier for these workers to get to their jobs, and to keep our economy running, every day. 
 
This June, let’s mark Immigrant Heritage Month by celebrating these immigrants, their courage and their newfound freedom!
 
For more information and resources about AB60, go to http://driveca.org/