Dems try to give young illegals licenses

"It's ridiculous that you can buy a car and get insurance but not get a driver's license if you're undocumented," Asssemblywoman Fiona Ma said. "Most people depend on a car to go to work, take kids to school and do whatever else is needed in their daily l

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Democratic legislators are working with Gov. Jerry Brown and Department of Motor Vehicles officials to provide driver's licenses to hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants now eligible to work under President Obama's new "deferred action" policy.

"In the past, the argument against providing driver's licenses has been that it would be rewarding someone who has broken the law," said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. "But now we're talking about people who, by definition, have not broken any laws."

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, announced by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in June, allows undocumented immigrants younger than 31 who were brought to this country illegally before they were 16 to apply for protection from deportation for a two-year renewable term. It applies to young people who are in school, completed school or served honorably in the armed forces and who do not have serious criminal records.

It's a much-watered-down version of the Dream Act for young immigrants, which Obama and his fellow Democrats have been unable to get through Congress.

But while the eligibility standards for the new program are clear, it is far less certain what the effects will be in California and the rest of the nation.

States set the rules

When it comes to driver's licenses, for example, each state sets its own eligibility rules, said Ann Morse of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Governors in Texas, Arizona and Nebraska, for example, already have promised to block any efforts to provide driver's licenses or any other state services to young people under the deferred action program.

"The question is how the states want to treat this new class" of applicants, she said. "And one of the questions that's still unanswered is what documents the federal government will provide under the new program."

The document question is at the center of the California talks. Democrats who control the Legislature would like to see an administrative order that automatically grants the more than 400,000 immigrants eligible for deferment the right to a driver's license. DMV officials, however, argue that even with such an order, they might not be able to grant the licenses legally.

"It appears that young people who receive federal deferrals will be eligible for California driver's licenses, but it remains uncertain whether clarifying (state) legislation or regulations will be necessary," said Michael Marando, a spokesman for the DMV.

The reason goes back to California's long, contentious history of driver's licenses for undocumented workers.

It wasn't until 1993 that the state required proof that a person seeking a driver's license was a citizen or legal resident. Since then, efforts to lift that ban for undocumented workers have been vetoed four times, twice by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and twice by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The law now includes a long list of documents that can be used to prove legal residency to the DMV. But if the documents the federal government provides to the newly eligible immigrants aren't on that list, it may take a new bill to allow the licenses to be issued, Marando said.

Deadline approaching

If it takes a bill, it will have to be done in a hurry, because there's an Aug. 31 deadline for moving bills through the Legislature.

Negotiations are continuing, said Conrado Terrazas, an aide to Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, the Los Angeles Democrat who wrote the vetoed driver's license bills.

The fast-approaching deadline is the only real hurdle for a new bill. While Brown has told negotiators he won't support a bill that makes all undocumented immigrants eligible for driver's licenses, the governor reportedly would accept a more limited effort aimed only at those accepted for the deferred action program.

Because Democrats hold solid majorities in both the Assembly and the state Senate, finding the needed votes won't be a problem, said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco.

"It's ridiculous that you can buy a car and get insurance but not get a driver's license if you're undocumented," she said. "Most people depend on a car to go to work, take kids to school and do whatever else is needed in their daily lives."

GOP opposition likely

That's an argument unlikely to convince Republicans in the Legislature, who are expected to oppose any effort to allow the undocumented to receive licenses.

While something has to be done to help people who were brought to this country as children, that will take a federal plan that covers the entire country and takes place all at once, said Assemblyman Brian Jones of Santee (San Diego County), chairman of the Assembly Republican Caucus.

"Nibbling around the edges isn't going to fix this," he said. "This is part of a push in California to increase government handouts for people who came here illegally."