Driver's Licenses

Driving Privileges in California



On October 3, 2013, Assembly Bill 60 became law, granting the right to drive to all who can prove their identities and their residence in California and pass the required tests, regardless of immigration status. The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) estimates that 1.4 million people are eligible for the new licenses (Office of the Senate Floor Analyses, 2013)—by far the largest number of potential new licensees in the 11 jurisdictions that allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally.

The bill comes after 10 years of failed attempts to enact similar legislation. In 2004, the Legislature even recalled such a bill that had already been signed into law after it became an issue in the (successful) campaign to recall Governor Gray Davis and anti-immigration groups started a signature drive to overturn it (SBX3 1, 2004; Hendricks, 2003). This time, due perhaps to the experience of licensing immigrants through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or the growing power of the Latino electorate (Ramakrishnan & Gulasekaram, 2013; Sanders, 2013), the measure passed 28-8 in the Senate and 55-21 in the Assembly, with support from immigrant rights, Latino, labor, law enforcement, and insurance groups (AB 60, 2013). All voting Democrats, two Republican senators, and two Republican Assembly members stood in favor of the bill.

Governor Jerry Brown reversed his opposition to the policy after the bill was amended to make a sharper distinction between these licenses and a driver’s license valid for federal purposes (see the REAL ID Act section; Bernstein, 2013). The move to create a visible feature on the front of the license to differentiate it brought opposition from advocates concerned that the non-federal license could result in discrimination or might be used improperly in immigration enforcement. The final bill prohibits the use of the license as the basis for arrest or criminal investigation, the disclosure of information related to licensure as public record, and discrimination based on the type of license an individual holds.

In May 2014, DHS rejected California’s design for the license. The card, the agency said, should include a statement on the front, rather than the back, that it is not valid for federal purposes, as well as a unique design or color (Taxin, 2014). The ruling sparked dissent from legislators and advocates alike, with the California state Latino Legislative Caucus and Californian Congress members calling on DHS to reconsider, saying the design reflects “the intent of the law” (Lara & Alejo, 2014 [pdf]; Vargas et al., 2014 [pdf]). In September 2014, a revised design was approved by DHS, with the words “federal limits apply” on the front of the license and a statement on the back that it is not valid for “official federal purposes” (Huang & Ramirez, 2014). (The initial design had “DP” rather than “DL” as the distinguishing feature on the card’s face.)

Advocates have lobbied for, and the legislature has passed, legislation to refine the existing law. SB 853, enacted in June 2014, allows an applicant’s statement of not having received a Social Security number to be made on the license application form rather than a separate affidavit. AB 1660, enacted in September 2014, expands the nondiscrimination and privacy provisions of the law. And AB 852, also enacted in September 2014, authorizes a fine for charging to fill out a license application, in an effort to discourage licensing scams.

Implementing AB 60

Supporters of AB 60 hope that providing licenses to those who have been unable to receive them because of their immigration status will improve safety on the roads, decrease the impounding of cars, and encourage other states to adopt similar laws (White, 2013; Stoltze, 2013). As Brown said about the bill, “This is only the first step. When a million people without their documents drive legally with respect to the state of California, the rest of this country will have to stand up and take notice” (Chang, Winton, McGreevy, 2013). In order to meet those goals, however, the state must implement the policy successfully—by expanding its capacity to handle applicants, creating workable licensing regulations, and effectively educating the public about those regulations.

The DMV is planning to handle a spike in driver’s license applications in the first three years of the program, with an estimated 532,000 applicants in addition to the 10 million other driver’s license-related requests it will process in the first year (Governor’s Office, 2014; DMV, 2013). The 2014/2015 budget includes $67.4 million for AB 60 implementation (Governor’s Office, 2014). The DMV has been using those funds to hire and train new employees (822, according to the governor’s proposed budget) and to set up four temporary locations—in Lompoc, Stanton, Granada Hills, and San Jose (DMV, 2014; KHTS, 2014). See the map above for existing DMV locations (orange) and new temporary offices (green). The new offices are expected to stay in place for two to three years.

This is only the first step. When a million people without their documents drive legally with respect to the state of California, the rest of this country will have to stand up and take notice. — Governor Jerry Brown

Just as important as having the capacity to handle an influx of newly legal drivers is making sure those drivers can access the licenses—that the identification requested is reasonably available and the process clear. To that end, the DMV held initial public workshops to discuss the regulations that will make this policy a reality in January and February 2014, issued initial regulations in March, solicited feedback in further workshops in June and released the final regulations in November (initial regulations available in pdf here; final document requirements in pdf here). The workshops can be viewed in full online: Part 1 and Part 2 of the first before the regulations were drafted in Sacramento, the second pre-draft workshop in Los Angeles, and the workshops on the draft regulations in L.A. and Oakland.

Participants at the hearings encouraged the DMV to expand the type of documents accepted to prove a license applicant’s identity and residency to include documents such as school and church records. Additionally, participants expressed concerns about the price of securing documents and the appearance of the license, among other issues (Koseff, 2014; Taxin, 2014; Culver, 2014). Possibly due in part to the feedback from workshop attendees, the final regulations allow more documents to be used to prove a license applicant’s identity and residency than the draft regulations did. (For details on California’s regulations and how they compare to those in other jurisdictions, see Driving Privileges State by State.)

A potential obstacle to implementation is fear on the part of some undocumented immigrants that these licenses could be used for immigration enforcement—a concern repeatedly expressed at the public workshop in Los Angeles (Lovett, 2014). Getting out the word about the protections the law offers so that potential licensees can make informed decisions will be crucial to the program’s success.

A coalition of California’s service providers, community groups, and advocates has come together to help people get the information they need to get licensed, as well as advocating for regulations and implementation standards that will make licenses accessible to the greatest number of immigrants possible. Drive California offers a variety of resources for the public (see site, available in English and Spanish, and below).

Public Resources for AB 60 Licensing

Many resources have been developed to spread the word about the policy and help applicants prepare to get licensed. Community groups, as well as representatives from the DMV and law enforcement, and elected officials at both the state and local level have held information sessions all over California (DMV, 2014). The Drive California coalition has a calendar of such events.

The DMV’s AB 60 website is available in English and Spanish, with driver’s manuals, sample tests, and traffic sign flashcards in nine additional languages. At a July 2014 workshop in Los Angeles, city librarian John Szabo announced that licensing information would be available at all 72 L.A. library branches. There is also a guide to the process here.

In addition to written materials, other initiatives aim to prepare any potential applicant who wants to apply for a license for their availability in 2015. Local television networks in Southern California, Telemundo52 and NBC4, are hosting phone banks to inform people about AB 60. The Mexican consulate in Oxnard offers legal advice about licensing at the same time as it has a health clinic and its regular services, and the Mexican consulate in Santa Ana offers free monthly test preparation classes. Santa Barbara City College offered 18 sections of a free class teaching ESL specifically for the written driving test in Fall 2014 and will offer 14 sections in Winter 2015.

At the same time as community organizations were developing these services, scammers in San Jose have emerged charging prices as high as $1,000 for the promise of a license (Bay City News, 2014). The attorney general has issued a consumer alert about avoiding and reporting this kind of fraud (Office of the Attorney General, 2014). Legitimate services can help to curb the draw of these kinds of scams.

For an overview of the numbers and characteristics of the unauthorized population in California, see Who Are California’s Unauthorized?

About this project

The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, a university research center with the mission to address the challenges and opportunities of demographic diversity in the 21st century global city, has produced these featured digital publications using the USC Media Curator, an online publishing platform designed to bring together innovative research from across the University of Southern California and beyond. This project curates research relevant for immigrant service providers on the topics of Access & Use of TechnologyAccess & Use of Financial ServicesNotario Fraud, and Driver's Licenses for the unauthorized.


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