THE TIME HAS COME – California Access for Licenses for All


In the mid 1990’s, under the then Governor Pete Wilson, there was a wave of anti-migrante sentiment which ushered in Proposition 187, aiming to prohibit anybody undocumented, men, women and children from accessing health care, public education and other social services. Proposition 187 passed, with nearly 59% of voters, about 5 million supporting and 41% of the electorate voted against, totaling about 3.5 million voters.  Prop 187 was subsequently challenged in court as unconstitutional and after Pete Wilson attempted to appeal the overturning of Prop 187, the incoming governor, Gray Davis “pulled the appeal, effectively killing the law.”

Importantly, it must be highlighted that there were mass protests against the Proposition 187.  The outright anti-migrante bill also ushered in a new generation of activists that came out to fight for justice. In Los Angeles, for example, over 70,000 marched against the bill and hundreds upon hundreds of students organized mass walk-outs from schools across the state that had not been seen since 1968.

It was also during the mid 1990’s however, that a major change in the ability for undocumented workers to access driving licenses changed dramatically. Prior to 1994, a person could walk into the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and simply present a few documents proving that they resided in the state. For example, you could bring in a utility or phone bill that proved residency and then, simply, one would sign up to take the written exam and manual driving test to prove that they had the basic understanding of the rules and regulations as related to driving on California streets and highways.


This was drastically altered during the mid 1990’s, where now and since then, anybody that wanted to access a driving license could no longer prove residency of living in the state by providing utility bills and an identification, but now had to prove citizenship via a social security number. This essentially barred over 1 million undocumented workers to access the much needed license and has led to a catastrophic dilemma of workers driving without licenses.

There are only three (3) states that continue to see the importance of providing access to driving licenses to all motorists, the states of New Mexico, Utah, and Washington.  Recently, the governor of New Mexico attempted to overturn the practice, but was shut out by the legislature.

The question is, why does California not allow access to driving licenses for all?

Today, at the federal level, there clearly appears to be no semblance of a ‘Comprehensive Immigration Reform’ on the horizon, especially a reform that is “based on dignity, human, labor, civil rights for all people.*” The false promises of Barack Obama to pass reform have fallen by the wayside and in fact, have led to historical record-breaking mass deportations, via programs such as “Secure Communties”, unseen since the old days of Operation Wetback.

Especially with the ever encroaching anti-migrante politica coming out of the states like  Arizona, with Senate Bill 1070 – the ‘Show me your papers bill” for example. Other states are following to copy cat Arizona, like the states of Indiana, Utah, Mississipi, Kentucky, Georgia, Illinois, Florida, Maine, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Last year, California blocked the SB-1070 Copy Cat bill, among other anti-migrante bills that are lingering.

Not even the federal DREAM ACT was passed, a proposal that would provide a very specific sector of youth and students the possibility of attaining a ‘path to citizenship’ through a strict arduous trek either through higher education or military recruitment. Nearly 70% of this undocumented youth/student sector would most likely have to take the military enlistment route – a “poverty draft”,  due to the high costs of a college education, budget cuts, etc… leading them to be the cannon fodder for the upcoming wars abroad in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America, perhaps gaining citizenship while waiting in line for deportation or posthumously.

Having that any real ‘reform’ benefitting migrantes at a national level looks bleak, communities have launched efforts to change local or state policy affecting migrantes.

For example, the state of California recently passed AB-130 and AB-131, granting undocumented students access to in-state tuition and the possibility of benefiting from access to scholarships and other much needed resources to continue their studies.  There have also been efforts to address the abuse and profiteering generated from the increase in police checkpoints where, undocumented workers, for the past nearly twenty years had to deal a mandatory 30-day impound policy for vehicles confiscated from unlicensed drivers. These undocumented workers were forced to have their vehicle impounded, and in many cases, forced to walk home will all their belongings, children hugging them as they waited at the curbside for somebody to pick them up. They could not pick up their vehicle the next day, rather, had to wait out the 30-Day Impound, and then have to consider the costs. Many would leave their vehicle impounded, where their auto was later sold in an auction, bringing in more profits for the tow-yard companies and the city. On top of that, they were still fined for leaving their vehicle at the tow-yard.


If an undocumented driver even fathomed paying all of the ransom fines to recover their vehicle, it literally cost them thousands of dollars. A minimum of anywhere from $1,500-$3,000 in fees is what it usually cost to rescue their auto from the grips of the state. Most city police departments first, charge an ‘administrative/release fee’ ranging from $100-$200 to get a permit to pick up a vehicle.  In some cities,  for example the in the city of Oxnard, the ‘release permit’ costs $241 (the highest in the county of Ventura) at the police station with some of the ‘administrative fees’, nearly $100 goes back into the pocket of the citing officer. Nice little incentive. Then, most local impound yards charge anywhere from $30-$60 a night per vehicle impound plus fees for the tow. Then, adding on top of that the fines in court for ‘driving without a license.’  These fees have resulted in millions of dollars in profit over the last two decades.  The rate of police checkpoints has increased by 53% in the last couple of years.


Communities across California, from urban cities like San Diego, to Santa Ana, to San Francisco, San Jose to Los Angeles to smaller towns such as Oxnard began to organize to expose police checkpoints, guised under traffic safety and driving under the influence revision checks as a profiting scheme to rake in millions of dollars, with an average of $40 million per year off the back of the most vulnerable, economically disenfranchised population in the state; working-class Raza sin papeles. Recently, with the state-wide unity and pressure from the community AB-353 was enacted. With the passing of AB-353 new rights are now guaranteed to unlicensed drivers at police checkpoints, where authorities can no longer impound vehicles of undocumented unlicensed drivers simply for not having access to a license. The police must allow for the registered owner, or a licensed driver with the permission of the registered owner of the vehicle to secure the vehicle from the checkpoint without it being towed. AB-353 has led to a sharp decrease in the number of impounds at checkpoints.

Photo: Members of the Southern California Immigration Coalition Photo Photo: Licenses for the undocumented. Beware of checkpoints and patrols. 

Therein lays the problem.

Now that the police can no longer confiscate, outright steal undocumented Raza’s vehicles from checkpoints to cash in, they have reverted to utilizing state and federal grants for dealing with Driving Under the Influence away from checkpoints to mass ‘Saturation Patrols’, a loophole, where the protections at checkpoints are null and void. The reality is that over 90% or more of the impounded vehicles from undocumented Raza occurs outside of official checkpoints at general traffic stops. The dramatic increase in racial profiling and systematic criminalization of thousands upon thousands continues.

There is a bill, AB-1993 that has worked its way into the state legislature and has now passed the assembly. This bill would essentially guarantee the rights given at checkpoints by AB-353 to general traffic stops. This is a progressive measure that would ameleorate some of the burden, so we must push and support it. Unlicensed drivers would be protected in most general traffic stops from their vehicles from being towed, however, they would still be fined for driving without a valid California Driver License.

The very backbone of the state of California’s economy rests upon the shoulders of Raza. Now more than ever, the time has come, to enact access to Licenses for All in California.  We use our vehicles to take our children to school,  go to work  in the campos, factories, restaurants, hotels that have historically kept this state afloat and thriving.  We will demand dignified wages to sustain our families and can no longer live in fear from getting behind the wheel and become open targets every day for not having a license to drive.

This summer, communities will unite state-wide to push for the long overdue access to licenses for all.  From San Diego to Sacramento. Stay tuned for more information to come! Join us!

Ya basta! Licencias para todos, ahora!