By Jeremy B. White
jwhite@sacbee.com
Published: Tuesday, Sep. 24, 2013 – 12:00 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 24, 2013 – 6:25 am

The ride Isabel Medina was waiting for never arrived.

She and her husband, Felipe, both live in the United States illegally – they came from Mexico in 1996 – and one night eight years ago Isabel was in the hospital, waiting for Felipe to pick her up. He didn’t show. She eventually made her way home to find that Felipe had been pulled over for a traffic violation. The car was impounded, the couple had to pay $1,500, and they never got the car back.

However painful, the incident has not prevented them from once more taking to the roads.

“After that, even though we are scared to drive without a driver’s license, we still drive because it is a necessity,” said Medina, who lives in East Los Angeles. “We have to drive to get to school and work.”

Soon, they could do so legally. After a decade of failed attempts, California appears poised to join the small but growing number of states that offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Assuming Gov. Jerry Brown signs legislation on his desk, as he has said he would, California will move down a regulatory road to determine what, exactly, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants look like. It is a question that fueled skepticism around the legislation, Assembly Bill 60, compelling the bill’s author to briefly pull the measure as the 2013 session dwindled to its final hours.

Central to those concerns was how blatantly the licenses would identify their carriers as being here illegally. Stringent new federal requirements, adopted in 2005 in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, require applicants for government-issued IDs to submit information, like a Social Security number and evidence of lawful status, that undocumented immigrants by definition lack.

So the immigrant licenses must bear markings distinguishing it from full licenses and a disclaimer that the card cannot be used for federal purposes – a troubling proposition to critics. By allowing immigrants to drive legally, skeptics asked, are we opening them to exposure and, potentially, deportation?

“It really sort of put a target on immigrants because if the entire discretion for what the marks were was to be left up to the DMV at the behest of the administration, and you had an anti-immigrant Pete Wilson type in office, there’s nothing to prevent them from putting a big red ‘immigrant’ across the license,” said Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation.

Ultimately, Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, managed to allay those concerns with amendments prohibiting discrimination and suggesting what the licenses might look like – they would be “very discreet,” Alejo said. The opposed groups dropped their resistance.

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