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Give undocumented immigrants driver's licenses

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
September 17, 2013 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • California will soon provide driver's license to illegal immigrants
  • Ruben Navarrette: The Golden State is usually a trendsetter but fell behind on this issue
  • He says giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants with restricted use benefits all
  • Navarrette: The undocumented would rather have a driver's license so they can work

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

(CNN) -- California has long been a trendsetter. But on the issue of giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, it fell behind other states. After what seems like forever, it is poised to become the 10th state, along with the District of Columbia, to make this concession.

California is ready to jump on the driver's license bandwagon after many years of setbacks, betrayals and disappointments for advocates of the cause. Sometimes, it feels like we have been talking about doing this in the Golden State since before the automobile was invented.

In fact, while more than two dozen states have debated the issue in recent years, California was one of the first states to consider giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. It could have set the trend, instead of letting nine states -- and the District of Columbia -- get ahead of it.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Much of the credit for that early start belongs to persistent Democratic State Sen. Gil Cedillo who has, since 1998, tried eight times to get bills passed in the legislature that would grant driving privileges to the undocumented. Over the years, Cedillo's driver's license bills have been vetoed by Republican and Democratic governors alike.

As time went on, it became clear what kind of bill would be most likely to succeed -- one with some critical adjustments making clear that undocumented immigrants would be able to use the licenses only for driving and not for identification to obtain employment or board airplanes, or open bank accounts or obtain public benefits and other privileges.

That was a game changer. Other states, such as Utah and North Carolina, also attached special language to driver's license bills. Often, it was something like: "Not for Identification." And it was stamped right on the license.

Fair enough. A lot of Americans don't like the idea that undociumented immigrants could carry in their wallets a driver's license identical to theirs. This solves that problem.

So then Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo, with Cedillo's blessing, introduced AB60 granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants provided the licenses have special language stamped on them stating that the ID is only good for driving and not for anything else. Last week, both houses of the California legislature approved the bill. And Gov. Jerry Brown issued a statement indicating he would sign it.

About 2 million people in California are expected to qualify for driver's licenses, if the bill becomes law. While some activists on the left complain that the language on the license amount to a "scarlet letter" that will encourage profiling and discrimination, other advocates are more practical and realize that driver's licenses of any kind are an important step that could make life much easier for a good many people.

That's why I support this bill. It will allow drivers to get auto insurance and make it less likely that they will flee the scene of an accident. It represents a fair compromise that gives undocumented immigrants what they need, without giving away the store and blurring the line between immigrants and natives. Lastly, the enthusiasm with which people are reacting to the law highlights what many of us have been saying for a while -- that, despite the nonsense you hear out of Washington, the undocumented would rather have a driver's license so they can get to work than citizenship and the right to vote.

This law will also cut down on abuse by making it harder for towns and cities to confiscate vehicles at increasingly popular driver's license checkpoints. Municipalities currently make money on the towing fees, and, if the car is never picked up, on the sale of the vehicle at auction. In some places, we're talking about several hundred cars per month. It generates lots of revenue for the localities, and wreaks havoc on the lives of hard-working people who are just trying to get from point A to point B to support their families.

This is happening more often in California as local budgets go into the red. Just because people complain about undocumented immigrants doesn't mean that they aren't eager to make money off them. It happens a little at a time, so the undocumented immigrants don't feel the local officials' hands in their pockets. This law could help put an end to it.

Giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants -- with restricted use, "scarlet letter" and all -- is an idea whose time has finally arrived. It just took California a little longer than usual to catch up to it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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