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Sonoma County immigrants, advocates cheer driver's license law

Published: Friday, October 4, 2013 at 8:51 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 4, 2013 at 8:51 a.m.

Newer cars, safer roads, fewer vehicle impounds and more insurance — that’s how local Latino immigrants described the possible effects of a new law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday that grants driving privileges to undocumented immigrants in California.

For one Graton day laborer, the new law means he can buy a “better and safer car” to get to work without fear that it will be impounded if he is pulled over by police.

“This is a relief,” said Manuel, an undocumented immigrant who asked that only his first name be used because of his immigration status. “Without a license, you’re always on edge, afraid that you’ll be stopped by the police.”

The bill had the backing of the state’s Police Chiefs Association and insurance authorities, who said it would make the streets safer by encouraging undocumented immigrants to learn the rules of the road.

State and local immigrant rights advocates said the move lifts a significant burden from undocumented immigrants, who have not been able to drive legally in California since the mid-1990s when the state required driver’s license applicants to provide proof of legal presence in the United States.

Unable to get a driver’s license, undocumented immigrants risked having their cars impounded if they were pulled over, resulting in fines and fees that can reach more than $2,000.

In Sonoma County, before some law enforcement agencies began accepting Mexican consular cards as valid identification in 2011, undocumented immigrants were often booked into county jail because they could not provide proper identification. There, many were placed on federal immigration holds while they were screened for deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We’ll find fewer people in jail. Fewer people will be exposed to ICE,” said Richard Coshnear, a Santa Rosa immigration attorney and member of the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County.

“Families will be able to hold onto more of their money. People have been paying hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars in fines for driving without a license infractions,” he said.

Under AB 60 by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, the California Department of Motor Vehicles is required to issue a driver’s license to undocumented immigrants who can prove their identity, state residency and meet a number of other requirements, including passing the written exam and driving test.

The licenses, which are expected to become available no later than January 2015, will carry a special designation on the front distinguishing them from regular driver’s licenses.

The new law bans discrimination based on the license and states it cannot be used as a basis for arresting someone for being in the U.S. illegally.

On the back, the cards will carry the message that they are not to be used for federal purposes, such as obtaining a Social Security card or determining eligibility for employment or public benefits.

California now joins 10 other states in the country that grant driving privileges to undocumented immigrants. State officials estimate 1.4 million drivers will apply for licenses under the law over the next three years.

“When a million people without their documents drive legally and with respect in the state of California, the rest of this country will have to stand up and take notice,” Brown said Thursday during a signing ceremony in Los Angeles on the steps of City Hall. “No longer are undocumented people in the shadows.”

There are an estimated 20,000 undocumented immigrants living in Sonoma County.

At one used car lot on Santa Rosa Avenue, salesman Rene Castro said many of his customers are undocumented immigrants who often buy older, inexpensive cars because of the fear of losing them to an impound.

Castro said he thought thousands of immigrants currently driving illegally in Sonoma County would benefit from the law. But he said there could be a downside for his business.

“Now some of them are likely to go to the new car dealers for their cars,” Castro said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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