BELL, Calif. - The auditorium was packed. There were single mothers, day laborers, grandparents pushing infants in strollers and teenagers interpreting for parents. All of them faced a potentially life-changing prospect: Within a year, California will start offering driver’s licenses to immigrants who are living in the country illegally.
But one person after another stepped to the microphone and expressed fear that the licenses, far from helping them, could instead be used to deport them.
Last year, when California became the most populous state to pass a law permitting undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses, advocates for immigrant rights were thrilled, saying it would allow people to commute without fear while also decreasing rates of hit-and-run accidents and uninsured drivers on the roads. Now those advocates are confronting another formidable obstacle: the deep and longstanding mistrust of the U.S. government among this population.
It turns out that convincing immigrants who have spent decades avoiding the authorities to willingly hand over their names, addresses and photographs to the government is no easy sell - particularly since the licenses will look different from regular ones, in ways that have yet to be determined.
“I believe this license process is not secure,” one woman, who declined to identify herself, told state officials at an informational hearing here hosted by the Department of Motor Vehicles here. “Is this a trap?”
“It’s not a trap,” said Ricardo Lara, the state senator who represents this working-class city, where more than 40 percent of the population is foreign born. State law guaranteed that their information would not be shared with other government agencies, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he said, adding, “Your information is protected.”
California, home to an estimated 2.5 million illegal immigrants, has been busy fashioning itself as the most welcoming state for immigrants, passing measures designed to reduce deportations, offering in-state tuition to all residents, and more. But skepticism among this population has grown since President Barack Obama took office, as deportations have hit record highs and efforts to reform immigration laws have stalled in Congress.
Combating this endemic mistrust, Lara said in an interview, is “the most significant challenge” of getting unauthorized residents - many of whom are already behind the wheel without licenses - to take road tests and buy auto insurance.
“People are skeptical, and rightfully so,” Lara said. “These are people who have been living in the shadows, living in constant fear. We have to work hard to ensure we really protect these folks.”
Atalia Cervantes, a single mother of three who came here illegally from Mexico two decades ago, already drives every day, despite her lack of a license.
“Every time I buckle my seatbelt, I am afraid,” said Cervantes, 30, who drove nearly an hour with her oldest daughter to voice her concerns at the hearing. “It’s affecting my girls. My youngest girl said, ‘Mommy, why are you so afraid of the cops? Cops are for protecting us.’”
Still, she was not sure if she would apply for a driver’s license. She worried that with it set to look different from those given to legal residents, it might lead rogue police officers to arrest people like her and call immigration authorities, even though that is prohibited by law.
“If they write something on the back of the license that says it can’t be used to deport me, then maybe I’ll get one,” she said.
A growing number of states across the country are beginning to face this same challenge of winning illegal immigrants’ trust. Last year, eight states joined New Mexico, Utah and Washington in extending some driving privileges to illegal immigrants.
Nevada began issuing “driver authorization cards” to immigrants in the country illegally at the start of this year, with the goal of reducing the number of untested and uninsured drivers on the road. Lines at Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles offices in January wrapped around corners. Through Feb. 10, more than 16,000 people had applied for driver authorization cards.
Despite the early rush of applicants, however, many immigrants were not convinced that the authorization cards were safe, said David Fierro, a spokesman for the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles.
“There is a high level of distrust,” Fierro said. “People were convinced that no matter what we were saying, once we had them in our system, we would pass their information on and someone would be there to round them up.”
“I don’t think that’s been completely dispelled,” he said. “Some are still waiting to see what happens with their friends who apply.”
Overcoming this distrust is essential to making sure the program works, Fierro said, since the point is to get unlicensed and uninsured drivers off the road. The state is optimistic: Nevada, with about 250,000 undocumented residents, hired 18 additional workers to deal with the influx of immigrants seeking driving privileges.
California, home to about a quarter of all immigrants in the country illegally, is hoping for a much larger rush. State officials here expect 1.4 million people to apply for the licenses, and the California Department of Motor Vehicles will hire 1,000 new workers and open four temporary offices, which will serve only people seeking new licenses.
The agency has also been working with consulates to help people in California get identifying documents from their home countries, a requirement for anyone applying for a driver’s license; officials have not yet decided what documents will be accepted.
Under the law, the state must begin issuing the licenses by January of next year.
Identification records can be expensive and difficult to obtain, especially for people who have not returned to their home countries in decades. Lara said he hoped the state would also accept less formal proofs of identification, like baptismal and marriage records from churches.
At the meeting here, many people came brandishing identification cards from day laborers associations, immigration rights groups and other local groups they belonged to, hoping that would be enough.
Critics argue that this approach would invite identity fraud. In New Mexico, which has issued driver’s licenses to unauthorized residents since 2003, state officials have complained about such fraud, prompting some Republicans to call for ending the program.
“It would be a sham for the state to represent that they’re actually able to verify identity looking at things like baptismal records or Sam’s Club cards,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington. “This process is an exercise in providing documentation to people whose legitimate identities cannot be ascertained.”
Andrea Guadarrama, a housekeeper and grandmother of eight who lives in Los Angeles and attended the hearing here, said she worried about what the new licenses would look like.
“I’m concerned about the mark that will go on our licenses,” she said. “We are already marked by our color and our names, and the police are against us.”
Even so, Guadarrama said she planned to apply for a license as soon as she was able. For now, she takes the bus from her apartment downtown to work in Santa Monica, a ride that can take up to three hours.
She did not know how or where she would get the documents she needed to prove her identity - after 27 years in the United States, she said, she no longer has her birth certificate from Mexico - but said she would do whatever was necessary.
“Oh my god. If I had a license, I could make more money, see my grandkids more,” she said.