Does California Legislation Signal a Shift in Immigration Policies?
by Devon G. Peña
Given the reactionary patterns of the past five years, in which states like Arizona (SB1070) and Alabama (HB54) gave us atrociously anti-immigrant laws, it is with a sigh of relief that we observe legislation signed recently by California Governor Jerry Brown that will allow people living in the state sans proper documentation to receive a permit to drive legally in California.
According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Governor Brown explained: “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. No longer are undocumented people in the shadows, they are alive and well and respected in the state of California.”
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck had already endorsed the legislation.
According to Los Angeles Times reports, the bill was developed and introduced by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, a Democrat from Watsonville. The original version would have granted drivers’ licenses but but was changed at the request of Governor Brown to meet requirements of the federal Department of Homeland Security that the permits carry the notation “DP,” for driving privilege, to distinguish them from regular driver’s licenses.
A Times report by Richard Winton, Patrick McGreevy and Catherine Saillant, clarifies that a notice on the driving permit card will state: “This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes. This license is issued only as a license to drive a motor vehicle. It does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration or public benefits.” This notice was imposed on the language for the California bill by the Department of Homeland Security.
Supporters of the legislation had argued that this was a pragmatic response to the fact that California’s undocumented workforce is not leaving, provides vital economic services, and must therefore be able to travel to and from work and other activities. According to the L.A. Times report: “The law will also make law would make roadways safer because there would be less motivation for drivers afraid of being deported to flee the scene of a traffic accident. They would also be tested on the rules of the road.”
Is this legislation as a good development as the media and some Latina/o human and immigrant rights activists say it is? Are all the stakeholders realizing benefits from a bill that basically regularizes undocumented drivers into a category that grants no other recognitions? My concern is that we will begin to view a piecemeal effort to “document” the “undocumented” as a policy that passes muster as a substitute for what is needed: A more comprehensive federal recognition of 14th Amendment’s rights for all persons within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
That said, the granting of driving privileges for the undocumented, when viewed as combined with additional measures — such as access to in-state college tuition rates, state-based financial aid, and similar tangible benefits, then we are truly seeing the beginning of a state-level progressive response to the anti-immigrant models championed by Koch Brothers-funded extremists in Arizona, Alabama, Oklahoma, Georgia, and other states.
The decision by Gov. Brown to abide by progressive policies formulated by State Legislators, and especially Latina/o assembly persons, is not going to eliminate the inequities and structural violence created by a lack of comprehensive immigration reform. It does not end the violence of the 2 million undocumented persons deported under the Obama Administration so far.
However, the new driver permit law can be seen as small part of a courageous and righteous alternative to the maintenance of a dehumanizing state of exception based on the perpetuation of the Walled State the United States has become in the wake of 9/11.
Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.