Like many eager teens growing up in car-crazed Los Angeles, Luis Colula learned how to drive when he was 18. His parents taught him, making him pore over a DMV manual before practicing on the road.
But Luis and his younger sister Anilu never got their driver’s licenses. They legally couldn’t. They’re both undocumented immigrants who came to California from Mexico City with their parents when they were just tiny tykes. Luis was 4 years old. Anilu was 2.
“When you drive, you do have a fear. If you see a cop, your heart starts racing. You try to make sure you’re obeying all the rules,” says Luis Colula, now 27. “I was never afraid of the immigrant consequences, deportation. I was afraid of the financial impact. They confiscate your car, and it’s impounded for 30 days. That was always my main concern.”
That fear will dramatically drop with AB60, the landmark bill that California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Thursday granting special driver’s licenses to those living in the U.S. illegally. There are about 2.6 million undocumented immigrants in California, and millions who drive will benefit from the new legislation.
While Luis was finally able to obtain a driver’s license in June due to approved status under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals memo, his 25-year-old sister still drives four miles to and from work at an L.A. clothing store without a license.
“I was having a conversation with my parents over breakfast when the bill passed a week and a half ago. She overhead me from her room, and texted me, ‘Oh, I heard I can get a driver’s license now.’ It was just a text, but I could sense her excitement,” says Luis. “My parents are relieved.”
AB60 not only represents a shift in state policy, it represents a shift in sentiment towards immigration that could spread far and wide. Case in point is the broad coalition of support that the bill has amassed.
The non-partisan non-profit California Immigrant Policy Center is one of a slew of organizations that pushed for the legislation since the beginning of the year, having weekly calls with community groups. The licenses are slated to be available by the beginning of 2015.
“We feel this does end a long reign of discrimination against undocumented drivers,” says Ronald Coleman, CIPC's Sacramento-based government affairs manager. “California is taking a huge step. Giving immigrants documentation legitimizes their presence. The federal government could learn from this moment.”
Another entity, surprisingly, that is celebrating this moment: Law enforcement.
When I was in graduate school for journalism 11 years ago, I went on a police ride-along for class for eight long, winding hours in Long Beach, California. What I learned and wrote about based on that experience was this: My police officer host was sick and tired of routinely stopping undocumented immigrants for various driving infractions, and he wanted them to be formally licensed.
Today his dream has come true.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, the California Police Chiefs Association and other law enforcement agencies have vocally backed AB60 in the name of time and safety.
“This is better, so no matter your immigration status, you should be properly licensed,” says California Highway Patrol Officer Ming Hsu. “The courts are inundated with these misdemeanor cases. The idea for our department with AB60 is, again, that we want safer drivers out there, and to do that, these drivers need to demonstrate they can safely operate a vehicle and follow the rules of the road.”