by James Poulos | March 20, 2015 2:29 pm
After two months of granting driver’s licenses to once-undocumented immigrants, California officials reported big numbers. The Golden State program has supplied licenses to almost 150,000 immigrants. Supporters of the move have been quick to tout its perceived advantages — and to boost participation among those eligible.
Similar programs have been introduced in nine other states and the District of Columbia.
Originally introduced by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, the bill to issue driver’s licenses regardless of legal immigration status was passed into law in 2013. Assembly Bill 60, the Safe and Responsible Driver Act, permitted the expansion to take effect on the first day of 2015.
As the law specified, recipients did not get licenses identical to those possessed by U.S. citizens. Thanks to the requirements of federal law, the special licenses differed in their visual appearance by being marked, “FEDERAL LIMITS APPLY.” They cannot be used for specified purposes like entering restricted federal areas.
Now, with the process established by the law well under way, Alejo began urging Californians to help eligible recipients take advantage of the program. There, he said, the key is ensuring interested participants actually pass the driving exam.
“It took us 20 years to pass this law in Sacramento, and now that it is a reality, it is up to all our community, not just the legislators, not just the DMV but also organizations in our communities, to take it seriously and put aside the time to study the books, and be able to pass those tests,” he said.
As the Californian reported, in January, “The statewide written knowledge exam passage rate for all applicants for a new driver’s license was 48 percent, including AB60 applicants” — an increase of 1 percentage point over the Jan. 2014 results.
But other requirements and hurdles kept licenses out of the hands of many undocumented immigrants who wanted them. “Altogether, about 387,000 undocumented immigrants applied for licenses during the first two months of the program, the state said, but only 131,000 were granted them,” according to Reuters. “Immigrants applying for the licenses must still prove their identities with birth certificates or other means,” in addition to passing the driver’s test.
The flood of demand has reflected a growing sense statewide that beneficiaries simply won’t be subject to increased scrutiny at the federal level. Activists in the legal field have adopted a wait-and-see approach.
“The DMV has said they will not refer these cases to law enforcement as long as the person used the license for driving purposes only and did not commit any other criminal activity,” said one San Francisco attorney at the Asian Law Caucus. “We have not yet seen how this policy is playing out, so we are advising people to use caution.”
Although the licensing program has divided voters in California, where the issue of undocumented immigrants remains sharply unpopular among many residents, beneficiaries of AB60 have scored a public relations coup of sorts thanks to an unanticipated development: increased rates of organ donation.
As the Fresno Bee reported, the California Transplant Donor Network reasoned the law spurred an increase of some 30 percent:
“From Jan. 2 to March 3, 56,000 people signed up as organ donors, according to the donor network, the only federally designated organ recovery organization in Northern and Central California and Northern Nevada.
“‘It’s got to be more than a coincidence that in the past three months — since AB60 took effect — so many people were added to the donor registry, said spokesman Anthony Borders. ‘It’s the only spike that’s happened in the last few years.'”
Although analysts have not yet connected all the dots, some accounts suggested Latinos who immigrated illegally have benefited from clear religious support in opting to donate.
“Recent popes have spoken in favor of organ donations,” the Orange County Register reported. “Pope Benedict XVI was a card-holding organ donor until he became pope, according to the Catholic News Agency. More recently, Pope Francis described organ donations as ‘a testimony of love for our neighbor.'”
Francis is the first pope from Latin America.
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