One small piece of plastic is drastically improving the lives of undocumented immigrants who call California and Nebraska home.
In California — home to nearly three million undocumented immigrants, or about 25% of the nation’s undocumented population — 443,000 undocumented immigrants have received driver’s licenses under new state law, and thousands more have applied.
State officials estimate they’ll issue a total of 1.5 million licenses to undocumented immigrants over the next three years. And even eight months after the law went into effect, immigrants are still lining up every morning at local Department of Motor Vehicles offices to apply.
When Alberto Fraire drives past a police car these days, he no longer worries about steep fines, or perhaps being hauled to jail and tangling with the immigration system. When California began issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants this year, he was one of the first in line.
“There’s a huge sense of relief now; it’s a psychological thing,” said Mr. Fraire, 37, who came to the United States with his parents from Mexico more than 25 years ago and recently leased a new black BMW to celebrate receiving his license in May. “I am not completely secure, but I don’t have to worry every time I get into my car.”
Mr. Fraire is part of an extraordinary milestone. In the first six months of this year, more than half of the new driver’s licenses issued by California went to undocumented immigrants like him.
In Nebraska, young undocumented immigrants won a landmark victory in May after a unicameral legislature lifted a Republican-led ban on issuing driver’s licenses to beneficiaries of President Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program.
While the state’s Republican Governor, Pete Ricketts, had initially vetoed the legislation, the legislature was able to override it by a massive 34-10 bipartisan margin. The victory made headlines — Nebraska had been the final state in the nation to refuse to issue driver’s licenses to DACA recipients.
Since the law’s enactment, Nebraska has issued 1,300 driver’s licenses to DACA recipients, with the Department of Motor Vehicles reporting it was seeing an increase of 50-70 applicants per day after the law’s passage.
One such recipient is Yajaira Gonzalez, a 20-year-old whose parents brought her to Omaha from Mexico shortly before her ninth birthday.
“It felt like I could be part of the society I’ve always grown up in,” she said of obtaining the license just days after the law went into effect.
The University of Nebraska Omaha junior had relied on her father to drive her to school and work, at a time when he was working 13-hour days. Now, Gonzalez said, she routinely helps drive her younger sister to a babysitter and takes her mother grocery shopping.
And the state and counties win, too:
The Nebraska DMV estimated in March that the measure would generate about $38,000 for the state and counties combined if 2,300 deferred-action recipients were to apply.
As the NYT’s California piece notes, it’s been local and state victories — like the ones seen there and in Nebraska — that have helped immigrants integrate into their communities in the face of Congressional inaction on immigration reform:
Thanks to recent [California] legislative measures, [undocumented immigrants] can receive financial aid and student loans to attend state universities and can be approved to practice more than 40 professions, including law, architecture and dentistry.
Mr. Fraire, for example, works as an electrician and plans to apply for a contractor’s license so he can open his own business.
Under the budget approved this year, children from low-income families, regardless of their immigration status, will receive subsidized health care. Lawmakers are also considering legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to pay for health insurance through the state’s public exchange. And a bill that would give agricultural workers permits and protect them from deportation, the kind of policy that has historically been in the federal domain, cleared its first legislative hurdle with nearly unanimous support.
Huntington Park, a suburb of Los Angeles, is moving this week to appoint undocumented immigrants to two unpaid advisory board positions.
“If Congress isn’t going to act, this state will find its own way,” said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, a Democrat and the author of the driver’s license legislation and the agricultural bill.
And for so many immigrants who have worked hard for their families while living in fear that everyday things like traffic stops could eventually result in deportation, these victories represent more than just documentation — they represent validation.
Nebraska DACA recipient Fatima Flores-Lagunas, a University of Nebraska Omaha junior, sums it up best:
“It’s more than just a piece of plastic,” she said. “It’s your identity.”