Editorial: It’s Time for the State to Offer Drivers Licenses to Undocumented Workers

Go get 'em. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/dcmetroblogger/##Wayan Vota/Flickr##

As the year draws to a close, the a debate is popping up between LAPD leadership and the Los Angeles Police Protective League over how to handle unlicensed drivers.  Yesterday, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck announced that the City of Los Angeles would allow unlicensed drivers pulled over by the police to call a friend or family member to pick up their car rather than have it be impounded.  Beck explained the decision to the Times:

In an interview Tuesday, Beck amplified his position: “It’s a fairness issue. There is a vast difference between someone driving without a license because they cannot legally be issued one and someone driving after having their license revoked.”

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a lobbying body for police officers, contends that such a move while make Los Angeles’ streets less safe, as unlicensed drivers will not lose their car, which of course makes it likely that they will drive again.

The statistics are staggering.  Of the roughly 40,000 fatal car crashes that occur annually in America, 20 percent involve a driver without a valid driver’s license, according to a study conducted for the American Automobile Association. That’s about 8,000 drivers who have either never taken a driver’s safety course or training in America because of restrictions against them doing so or are drivers that are so bad that they’ve managed to lose their drivers license because they’re such bad drivers that the government has revoked their driving privileges.

In the eyes of the law, these two groups are the same.  But in reality, the second group is a danger because of what they have chosen to do with the driving privilege while the first group is denied even a chance for that privilege.

Rules that make it easier for dangerous drivers to continue to drive unsafely make our roads less safe for all users.  That’s a no-brainer.  But laws that prevent undocumented workers from obtaining drivers licenses do the same thing.  By denying these immigrants the opportunity to take part in a licensing program that teaches driver safety doesn’t just punish people based on immigration status, it punishes everyone by not allowing streets to be as safe as possible.

But the punishment to undocumented immigrants is the hardest.  Last week, I spoke with attorneys Serena Lin and Judy London with Public Counsel.  Both told horror stories of undocumented workers who were pulled over and detained for not having a drivers license.  From there they were handed over to the local ICE office with no chance of making bail as they await deportation.  In most cases, the immigrant had no other criminal record, including no driver violations, and were just cited for driving without papers and boom, their lives as they know it are over.

“We understand the safety issue, but many immigrants are never given a chance to get a license in the first place.  If we’re going to be taking people’s cars and giving them tickets for not having licenses then we should give everyone a chance to get a license,” explains London.

Meanwhile, it’s no secret that Los Angeles’ roads aren’t the safest places to be.  At Huffington Post, Alex De Cordoba celebrates police stings that target those driving without a license.  Observing a traffic stop in Culver City, de Cordoba notes that over a four hour period the Culver City Police Department snared 100 people driving without a license.

DeCordoba ends his column with a call for more enforcement of driver’s license laws:

If you support safe streets and would like to end the menace of hit and runs that kill cyclists and pedestrians, take a moment to thank the Culver City Police Department for catching 100+ unlicensed drivers in that one morning. Call CCPD Traffic Division at 310-253-6251 and let Lt. Ron Iizuka know how much you support checkpoints to catch unlicensed drivers. Better yet, ask the police in your neighborhood to implement similar checkpoints. I have yet to see a more effective way to reduce the danger posed by hit and run drivers.

 We couldn’t agree more, but a little compassion for the undocumented worker is in-line too who is driving without a license.  After all, the ban on licensing immigrants without papers has been in place in California since 1993 and it’s not as though California has less undocumented workers than it did two decades ago.  If California is serious about creating safer roads through ticketing, detaining, and taking cars from those without licenses, and that’s a proposal that makes a lot of sense to me, then it should be giving all its residents a chance to have those licenses in the first place.
(Originally, this article referred to Public Counsel as “Public Citizen.”  Streetsblog regrets the error. – DN)
  • Protect the Middle Class

    Seriously? Drivers licenses to illegal immigrants? You just lost me as a subscriber.

    Doesn’t more drivers go against the overall message, anyhow? This is so off-point, and purely political.

  • Matt

    Gotta disagree here.  If you don’t have a license or insurance, you should lose your car.

  • that’s why it’s an editorial. 

  • Revebleu

    CA should license anyone living in the state.  CA is not in the business of immigration policy, the Feds are.  CA is in the business of keeping the streets safe and making sure everyone follows the rules.  Granting licenses to people with irregular immigration status will make the state safer and help bring people in from the shadows and into the fold of the law. that is good for everyone.

  • Anonymous

    “Meanwhile, it’s no secret that Los Angeles’ roads are safe.”


  • Anonymous

    I think the editorial essentially agrees with you here.  Making sure the laws against driving without a license are fully enforceable is exactly why it makes sense to allow people to test and apply for a license regardless of their immigration status.

  • Zucker

    What if I (a legal US resident with a legal CA DL and proper insurance) was stopped in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, etc without following their laws? Shoot, you can be perfectly legal in Mexico, yet still have to pay a “FINE” AKA pay off.

    Really, if you break the law, no matter what color, ethnicity, etc you might be, the punishment should be the same.

    And I wonder, as they call a family member to come pick up the car, do the police check to see if they have a DL?

    Follow the laws and if you don’t like said laws, vote with your feet.

  • Damien, this is why you need to stick with transportation. I really appreciate your work, but I hope you give any counterpoint to this argument just as much weight as your editorial. It is unfair for you to have that bully pulpit and not give others the opportunity to rebut with equal space.

    Look, illegal immigrants (not “undocumented workers”, because not all individuals not legally authorized to be in the United States work, and indeed some collect welfare on behalf of their US citizen children) are violating the law by their very presence. The driver’s license, despite the statement on the back that says that it is not a valid proof of legal presence, acts as a legal presence document. But driver’s licenses are used to gain access to government facilities and for identification of names. How are we supposed to verify the truth of any document used to establish identity without the original source being recorded in a database accessible to law enforcement? What’s to stop me from faking an accent, presenting some “birth certificate” in a foreign language that no one understands, and manufacturing an identity and using that to commit fraud or terrorist acts? (Note that field officers have opposed Matricula Consular for this reason… the other governments, by sovereignty, do not give access to the United States to verify the authenticity of the document. Mike Antonovich got a realistic Matricula card a few years ago.)

    Part of the risk of living in a country where you are not supposed to be in is that when SHTF, you are going to be in a lot of trouble. When I speed on the freeway, or blast through a two lane desert road at 110 mph, I take that risk that I’ll get a ticket, or in the latter case get arrested for reckless driving. I make that choice willingly, and the unauthorized individual makes that choice as well. They are doing what is right for their families, but they took that risk and we shouldn’t amend our laws to eliminate speed limits any more than we should discriminate against those who are not geographically near the United States.

    Unlike most illegal immigrant activists, I fully support expansion of legal immigration, but it has to be diverse, and it has to protect American values instead of just selecting folks who can scrounge up the money and cross the border. In the mean time, visitors can follow the provisions in State law that allow them to drive for as long as their license is valid – http://dmv.ca.gov/dl/dl_info.htm – but once they become residents they need to follow the law. It’s that simple.

  • Visitors from other countries can already drive on their valid foreign license. But if you are intending to establish residency, you need to have the legal right to do so in this country. In Asian countries they have a household register and you can be denied registration for a variety of reasons – and once you are denied, you can’t do anything that would establish residency like hold a bank account, drive, or own property. 

  • Damien needs to give equal time then. 

  • How do we know who someone is if they don’t have a US birth certificate (registered in a database at the State level and easily identifiable), or a record as being naturalized or a legal resident? What’s to stop me from getting a DUI and grabbing a friend, forging a birth certificate, and continuing to drive? Now imagine someone using that ID to enter a secured area. The loophole created is trivial. 

  • Damien Newton

    The point is that they’re already driving.  From a pure safety standpoint, they need to go through the same driver safety tests as the rest of us.  If you deny them the chance to be licensed, then there is no way to tell whether or not they are safe drivers.  I have personal opinions on this issue as far as immigrant rights and such, but from a safety standpoint the law as it is makes it impossible to tell who is and isn’t a safe driver if they are an immigrant without papers.

    If someone can make an argument that we are safer as road users without providing licensing options for everyone that lives in the state, they are welcome to do so and I would welcome a “Blowback” to use the Times’ words.

  • Damien Newton

    When someone is pulled over by the police and they don’t have a license they are fingerprinted.  When someone is charged with a felony they are fingerprinted.  The prints don’t lie, so a repeat offender will be treated as such.

  • Damien Newton

    “Meanwhile, it’s no secret that Los Angeles’ roads are safe.”

    Typo – fixed.

  • Damien Newton

    The entirety of the point of this is that the roads would be safer if we licensed any person with residency in the state that could pass the test and enforced harsh laws against unlicensed and unsafe drivers.  I couldn’t care less if they went with the 2003-2004 proposal to make different looking licenses for undocumented immigrants or whatever it is they have to do to deal with many of the concerns you list here.

  • Nomad


  • DJB

    I think you’ve laid out a solid and transportation-relevant argument. Regardless of you feel about undocumented/unauthorized/illegal immigrants, we all have a strong interest in making sure that people who use cars in California understand our rules of the road and can pass our safety exams. Even the most star spangled conservative has an interest in making sure the guy/gal in the next lane is a competent driver.

    Even if you already have a license from a foreign country, I say it doesn’t hurt to force people to take the driving test again here. Lots of drivers, immigrant and otherwise, get into bad habits after spending years behind the wheel. Sometimes having a professional instructor evaluate your driving can point out a dangerous behavior before it costs someone life or limb on the road.

  • Nomad

    The main point is that some cops are targetting people who look like immigrants (i.e. Hispanics) and are unequally using the law.  There are plenty of licensed drivers out there that are more of a danger the unlicensed drivers.  Some of these people have licenses from other countries and other states which allow them to have licences.  The arrogance that CA is best and DMV is best is just an excuse for prejudice and racist thought.  At least 80% of undocs are visa overstays from countries lioke canada, england, ireland but this topic only seems to target hispanics.  Call it what it is, selective law enforcement or racism, its all the same.
    Calwatch you are an uninformed dumb cop whose minute exposure to people in LA makes you spout this bullsh?t.  If you speed you will just waive your badge and get off.  Dont be stupid and pretend that doesnt happen.  You must have extensive education to make such blanket statements on immigration policy.

    BTW the proper term is undocumented immigrants moron, not workers or aliens.  Thats a derogatory term that dehumanizes people.  You expfress your ignorance through your weak writing.  And speak for yoursefl on IDs from other countries.  Some cops do accept that as good ID.  Weak ass foo

  • Anonymous


    Your argument is a bit disingenuous on its face. Your main claim is that offering drivers licenses to illegal immigrants will increase the safety of our streets due to the “driver’s safety course[s] or training” that they ostensibly would then have access to. BS.

    No one is currently preventing anybody from learning drivers safety. Do you think drivers ed courses check immigration status prior to registration? Is drivers ed really how anybody learns how to drive safely anyway? Nowadays you can take the requisite 30 hours you need prior to obtaining a learner’s permit ONLINE.

    In reality, your proposal would simply put more drivers on the road, creating more congested and unsafe roads for bicyclists and pedestrians, while reducing demand for public transit.


  • Anonymous


    Actually the legal term, that no one uses because it’s not very clear, is “unauthorized alien.” 

    I also believe the rest of your points, which lack cites, are contrived. You are turning a public safety issue into a race issue, which is wrongheaded and counterproductive.

  • Anonymous

    It’s been a little while since my last renewal, but I’m pretty sure you get your at least your thumbprint taken when you obtain or renew a driver’s license.  There are always going to be loopholes that can be exploited.  However, the effective loophole of being unable to differentiate people who cannot apply for licenses from the people who have proven themselves incapable of driving safely is tremendous.

  • Zucker

    Nomad, please. A white person driving in Mexico (legally) will get pulled over and “have to pay a ticket”.

    I don’t care what you look like, what race you are, where you come from, follow the laws where you are at. If I go to Ireland, Brazil, Japan, or Russia, you know what, I follow their laws (driving or not driving).

    If you don’t like the laws where you are at, vote with your ballot. If that doesn’t help, vote with your feet.

  • Chipndale1955

    kill them alland let “”God Sort Them Out””

  • Anonymous

    That is a most unwise policy approach.

  • Roadblock

     Is the ability to get a driver’s license the only barrier to getting car insurance? My biggest fear is not only unskilled drivers it is drivers who have little or no financial ability to cover my hospital bills or funeral services.

  • Jazzyme

    I fail to see the reasoning here. Clearly if someone picks up the vehicle and is a relative andor friend the offender will drive the same vehicle again and the process will repeat itself. This is not doing anything but encouraging the offender to continue to offend. I cannot believe the the Police Chief would think this is a sane thought. It appears that everyone is so eager to make everyone equal and have the same rights, that they are forgetting about the legal citizen’s rights. Clearly this needs to be challenged

  • jazzyme

    I agree wholeheartedly, it appears that anything said against a law is considered to be racist. People see to forget about the legal citizens in this country, no matter what the color may be. We do have rights and they are stepping all over them. Cannnot we have at least one discussion without someone shouting “racist”, this is really getting to be ridiculous to me. You are right on and thank you.

  • Anonymous

    You raise a good point. Personally, I’ve never been asked to provide a copy of my driver’s license when applying for an auto insurance policy. So, there should be nothing precluding an illegal immigrant from purchasing auto insurance. Yet, I highly doubt they purchase a policy… and why would they? If they’re constantly being given a pass on something as basic as a driver’s license, there is likely no fear of law enforcement on insurance coverage.

    But, Mr. Newton assumes the streets will become safe when unauthorized aliens are issued DLs, so I guess that means there’s no NEED for insurance, right?

  • Damien

    And that’s why I support licensing undocumented immigrants so that we can weed out the bad drivers.  This policy makes it easy for ALL bad drivers to keep their cars, and that’s bad for everyone.

  • Damien Newton

    Safer…I believe the streets will be safer.

    You do have to give a driver’s license number to get auto insurance, that’s how they figure out who does and doesn’t have crashes on their record.  So yes, as written the law prevents undocumented immigrants from getting drivers licenses.

  • Damien Newton

    I have bad news for you, they are already on the road.

  • Anonymous


    “I have bad news for you, they are already on the road.”

    Yes, many of them. Yet, there are certain percentage that, despite the unauthorized status largely wish to respect the laws of the land, and thus choose to Go Metro.

  • Ellenhubbell

    The poor ILLEGAL immigrant who didn’t get the chance to obtain a drivers license…how about the ILLEGAL immigrant who broke the law when he came here ILLEGALLY many years ago and never took the LEGAL path to become a citizen. Why didn’t these people do the right thing in the first place and follow the rules. First they broke the law by staying here ILLEGALLY, now they are breaking the law by driving without a license. There is no way we should give ANYONE slack for breaking any law. It is time for Chief Beck to enforce the law!

  • CallMeChiquita

    I am a Beck supporter but I must admit this one I am against. To me there are several issues going on here…….. This is one way of getting more money for the state of California with new DL issuing fees………….All the while LEGAL citizens get their cars towed. Talk about discriminating. We get punished because we are legal and those that are not continue to rape and pillage our resources at our expense and future sacrifices? ……..Are you just trying to satisfy your soon to be Ex bosses future political agenda?

  • LisaLisa

    Well said! I come from a family of Native American Indian/ Spaniard,and Mexican, 4 generations born in the USA dating back since 1880’s The last of those that just recently passed at a ripe old age of 101. Can I just say they couldnt have been more prouder to be the BEST LAW BIDING CITIZENS of AMERICA that they could be and they were totally disgusted and disappointed in how those illegals now a days just take and whine!!!

  • LisaLisa

    Your right the Feds are in charge of immigration. Taking the car away from anyone in violation should be done to keep our streets safe. We citizens have to jump through hoops to get any help at all while those here illegally just have to put their hands out.  So why are they letting just them keep their car? If it were you or I they would tow it . I know several born Americans that is has happened to. If they are not driving safe period who ever they are the car at the very least should get the car YANKED!

  • Nosretepeg

    Are you guys STUPID or you don’t understand the word “ILLEGAL”
    I hope they smash into your car and you have to pay to fix your car!!

  • Mig

    Wow.  That was thought out really well.  You make lots of convincing points.  How could have anyone ever thought otherwise.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  • Mig

    “We get punished because we are legal…”  Actually if a car get’s towed for a traffic violation, you get punished because you broke the law, not because you are legal or illegal.  Damien is suggesting the same rational apply to drivers who are unlicensed due to immigration status.  I can understand if you disagree with him, but your logic isn’t making a whole lot of sense to me.  And if you are truly concerned about resources being raped and pillaged, I think your attention is misplaced. 

  • Mig

    I also come from an immigrant family who obtained legal status to live here and I subsequently went through the proper channels to obtain my citizenship as an adult.  I consider myself an American and agree entirely with Damien.  While there are certainly people who just take and whine, of all ethnicities and origins, your generalizations paint a picture that I don’t believe is representative of reality.  Most of these folks are law abiding (apart from their immigration status) and also contribute to society.  There are costs and there are also benefits.

  • Mig

    I have a feeling that for most of these folks going Metro is less of a choice than you make it out to be.

  • DLMurray

    I bet to differ I know multiple people on the LAPD force and they are to let them go moving violation or not, and not to take the car licensed or not of they are ILLEGAL!

  • DLMurray

    Then they should hi tail their butts to the immigration office and hop to it. And the state of CA should give them the same hard a@$ run around they give us just to obtain a DL! Not cut them slack because they are illegal. I think you are missing what people are frustrated and over and done with that. Did you hear yourself? “Most of these folks are law abiding (apart from their immigration status)” That means they are not respecting the laws No# 1 because of their immigration status!

  • Mig

    DL, even if what you say is accurate, people are not being punished BECAUSE they are legal.  Geez, you people need to listen.

  • Mig

    DL, i did hear myself.  To use your logic, I would argue that there are many people who regularly flaunt the law because of reasons related or not related to their immigration status.  We have people out there who regularly drive illegally by not coming to complete stops or always talking on the phone, but I don’t hear anyone calling for suspension or prohibition of their driving privileges.  These folks are as much, if not a greater threat, to road safety than drivers who are unlicensed due to immigration status.  As you describe it, people can abide by all laws except for not having legal residency and be considered illegal.  Why, as it appears in your book, is someone  who breaks way more laws that pose threats to public safety, not as much of a concern.  That’s the real threat to our safety, resources, etc, and no one seems to feel as strongly about them.  And why… because of where they were born or because they hold a piece of paper saying green card or citizen.  Sounds pretty nonsensical to me. 

    We hear about cutting undocumented immigrants slack, but pretty much anything they have to do is harder and has more obstacles than it would for citizens.  I’m not saying it shouldn’t be that way, but what you say may sound nice and get people excited and gain support for your point of view, but not much truth to it. 

  • 4israel

    Damien- so since they’re already driving illegally we should make it easier on them to get a license?? So the government should start training drug dealers on how to safely manufacture drugs so people don’t get hurt instead of dealin with the problem directly? That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

  • 4israel

    Unfortunately the chief works for the mayor of LA. If the chief wants to keep his job he has to be the mayors puppet. There’s no public safety involved in his opinion over this issue. Sad

  • Dr818

    You do not need a DL to get insurance. The major insurers like State Farm, Allstae, etc will not issue insurance without a license but the 2nd teir companies take the money and issue crappy policies no questions asked.

  • Guest

    Here goes MIG, the pathetic bleeding heart liberal telling everyone what they SHOIULD think and feel.

  • Dr818

    Damien, you wrote:

    “But the punishment to undocumented immigrants is the hardest.  Last week, I spoke with attorneys Serena Lin and Judy London with Public Citizen.  Both told horror stories of undocumented workers who were pulled over and detained for not having a drivers license.  From there they were handed over to the local ICE office with no chance of making bail as they await deportation.  In most cases, the immigrant had no other criminal record, including no driver violations, and were just cited for driving without papers and boom, their lives as they know it are over.”

    Let me tell you something. The punishment to undocumented is the hardest No quite. Their lives were over as they know it. NO! My son’s life was over as he’s knew it last November 16 when he was struck and killed by an unlicensed driver whose car had been impounded for less than 24 hours. Had his car been impounded for 30 days as required by law my son would be alive today. That is the horror story. Serena and Judy undocumented immigrants break the law entering the country. They break the law driving. They probably broke the law driving without insurance and they broke the law working. So i would say they should have a criminal record of 4 violations.

    I actually agree that illegals should be given the opportunity to get a drivers license but until that day comes their cars should be impounded and they should be deported.

    Serena and Judy I’d like to hear what you have to say when one of your children is killed by an undocumented immigrant.  


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