June 13, 2003

The drivers license debate: Identity vs. Security?

“…With this letter I want to let you know
that this is the golden state for the ranchers,
but for field workers in general,
this is just a golden cage
with little food and no medicine…”
Part of a letter received by then Assembly member now Senator Cedillo,
written by an immigrant from the Central Valley.

By Mariana Martinez

People thought you had to be a legal resident to get a Drivers License but the until 1992 all the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) required was for the applicant to pass the exams, give a phone number, their age, gender and an address in California, in order to get a drivers license, no legal residency proof had to be established.

But in 1992 that started to change. A law was passed, that required to have a Social Security number, in order to have a driver’s license. The focus of that law wasn’t to keep undocumented immigrants from getting a license but to track “dead beat dads” and make them pay child support. But a year later -around the time of Proposition 187 was brewing- another law was passed, this time, it did focus on migrants, and it required proof of legal residence in the US in order to get a drivers license.

This proof of legal residency was to be checked with the immigration service, currently costing 3.4 million dollars a year, according to the Senate Bill #60 analysis (http://info.sen.ca.gov).

Prop 187 also passed. One of its cavets was that the police and social service workers, such as educators and health care workers of California verifyed the immigration status of the people who required their services, inform California and federal officials, and deny services to undocumented emigrants. In 1994, Prop. 187 passed with 59% of the vote, but most of its contents have been proven invalid in the courts.

One of the outcomes of Prop. 187 was a greater mobilization of Mexican Americans and a greater organization of Latino and Mexican immigrants. Soon after the Latino legislative caucus which had only 7 members in 1990, had grown to 24 members. And for the first time Californians started to see legislative efforts to actually help undocumenteds. An example of this is the drivers’ license issue.

Researcher Haley Hinda Seif, currently working in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California in Davis has been working on this issue and presented part of her work at the Permanent Seminar about International Migration at the Northern Frontier Border Research College (COLEF). Her work focuses on the Cultural shift currently going on in California and chooses to use ethnography of the legislative process.

But, why focus on California laws, if most foreign and immigration policy is made at a Federal level?

“We can’t forget the fact that California is a very important immigrant region and it’s an economic center both to the US and the world, currently ranked as the sixth largest economy in the world, and it was the origin of Prop 187. With immigration policy, you often see a trend happen in California and then spread to other states and then this trend goes on to the federal level.” Hinda said.

She has focused on the California drivers license issue, since 1999, mainly because of the anti-immigration climate in the early 1990´s symbolized by Prop. 187.

She finds that in the US, having a divers license gives you the right to drive but it is also used as one of the most commonly used identification documents. The US has a decentralized system of ID with the major way we identify ourselves is through a driver’s license or State ID card, these types of documents are commonly used to open bank accounts, enroll in school and get car insurance.

Hinda Seif points out “What we have to deal with in California is immigrant integration or incorporation, and one thing that I think is particularly important is, if they are undocumented immigrant in California, we can’t make them legal, we can’t make them permanent residents or affect their legal status. But if there are millions of undocumented people living in our state that we have to figure out what to do on a daily bases to include them in our state, so I think the question is, how do we include undocumented immigrants when we can’t legalize them?”

Senator Cedillo was an executive in a labor union who ran for office and won, as Hinda found out “he would ask people, what is the most important issue to you? And people would say: the drivers license.

Cedillo proposed Assembly Bill 1197 in 1999 to “Repel Social Security number and proof of legal status requirement for the California Drivers license” Reasons presented by Cedillo to change the law:

1. Trained, tested, and insured drivers enhance public safety; and;

2. Ensuring that all California drivers have access to vehicle liability insurance will reduce insurance costs for all motorists.

This initiative passed but was vetoed by the governor.

Congressmen Cedillo re-introduced the bill again in 2000 but this time, to help “Quasi legal emigrants”; most people in that category are people who are in the process of getting their green-card but also include some people who have applied for political asylum. It is mainly for people who don’t have legal residency but they have some kind of “middle” status. People in this category would have to show some other kind of ID, such as the Mexican Voting Card (issued by the Mexican Federal Government).

It was vetoed again in September of last year, for the third time, and in his veto document Governor Davis explains how he is willing to give driver licenses to hard working, law abiding immigrants who pay taxes and perform work that many Americans refuse to do….however, because so many of the arguments to get the diver license is that people needed them to drive to work, he said “we want proof that their working” and asked that they show proof that they’ve worked and lived in California for fifteen months over three years. And of course, he mentioned S-11, because it would be a problem for the driver’s license to get in to the hands of potential terrorists, for him, foreign ID is not proof enough that people are who they say they are.

As Researcher Hinda Seif explained, Cedillo was re-elected to the legislature as senator and this year he reintroduced Senate Bill 60, but instead of helping only “quasi legal immigrants”, he opened it up to all undocumented immigrants again, and he said in the Bill that instead of a Social Security # you should be able to use Federal Tax payer ID numbers, that undocumented immigrants can ask for, and pay their taxes.

The Bill just passed the Senate June 4 and if the governor doesn’t veto, it would become law in September of this year.

What are people doing in the mean time?

In the matter of public safety, authorities and voters alike seem preoccupied with the fear of another terrorist attack. Every day, people who are not getting tested to drive are getting in to their cars to go to work, not having a license or insurance creating day-to-day public safety issue as well, According to Cedillo, 10% of California drivers are uninsured.

Since 1992, people living in the USA have had to cope with the fact that they can’t get licenses. Some paying fines of over 1200 dlls, when they are stopped, others buy fake IDs –one of the illegal markets which have benefited from this law- or many Mexicans have started to use the Consular ID, Matrícula Consular as a form of ID.

This Matrícula issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs or Consulates all over the US, is issued for Mexicans living outside their country to have a document acknowledging them as Mexicans. It is now accepted as ID to open bank accounts -in some banks- and other situations where ID is required.

So for Researcher Hinda Seif, the fight for the California driver’s license is mainly a fight for recognition of the undocumented emigrant and “quasi legal “migrants, who are good enough to pay taxes and contribute to the greatness of “the golden state” but are feared to be terrorists when they ask for valid ID to perform every day tasks.

More often than not, immigrants perform “invisible tasks” and are constantly ignored by the average American; when they clear their table at a restaurant or wax their office floors at night. So the demand for valid ID has to do with the demand that their presence, identity and contributions be acknowledged by the country they help build.

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