February 7, 2016
Judith Benitez had gone most of her adult life without knowing how to drive.
The 35-year-old woman from Mexico who is in the U.S. illegally would ask family members for rides to pick up her children from school. Trips to the grocery store or the doctor’s office were complicated.
That changed last year when Assembly Bill 60 was implemented, granting people in the country illegally the right to obtain driver’s licenses in California. Benitez, who lives in Lemon Grove, learned to drive and was among those in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles the day the law took effect.
“Truthfully, it was an extremely emotional time because having a [driver’s] license isn’t just any little thing,” she said. “We feel a little more protected.”
An estimated 605,000 licenses were issued under the law last year, accounting for nearly half of all new licenses, according to the California DMV. Nearly 400,000 of the licenses were issued during the first six months.
“We believe that this new law increases safety on California roads by putting licensed drivers behind the steering wheel,” spokesman Artemio Armenta said.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed the measure into law in 2013, further establishing California as a national leader on immigrant rights. The legislation was authored by Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas), the son of farmworkers.
Brown in August signed a trio of immigration-related measures, which included elimination of the word “alien” within California’s labor code to describe immigrants in the country illegally. The new laws also included allowing noncitizen high school students to serve as election poll workers and protecting immigrant minors in civil lawsuits.
Licenses granted under the law have “federal limits apply” printed on them, which means that unlike California law enforcement, law enforcement officers in other states and federal officials aren’t obligated to accept the licenses as a valid form of identification.
State leaders and law enforcement officials have said the law will improve road safety because more drivers will be licensed and be more likely to be insured.
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Officer Josh Nelson, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol Border Division, said it’s difficult to determine whether improved traffic safety is correlated with the implementation of the law, but said it’s likely.
“Knowing that these drivers are being properly trained in order to get their licenses, it would only make sense that the roads would be safer,” he said.
California is among 12 states that now allow immigrants in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses, areas covering an estimated 37% of that population, according to an August report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
California, at 22%, has the nation’s largest percentage of immigrants in the country illegally who are eligible for driver’s licenses, according to Pew.
Critics say immigrants in the country illegally shouldn’t be given the privilege of obtaining licenses because they broke the law by entering the country. States such as California are only facilitating illegal immigration, they argue.
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