News And Politics

Driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants? South L.A. responds

Feb. 24, 2012, 7:48 a.m.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, pictured above at a press conference on Thursday, said he stood by his statement that driver's licenses should be issued to undocumented immigrants. (Credit: Ruxandra Guidi/KPCC)

The state of California should issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.

"The reality is that all the things that we've done -- 'we' being the state of California -- over the last 14, 16 years have not reduced the problem one iota, haven't reduced undocumented aliens driving without licenses," he told the Times. "So we have to look at what we're doing." Beck qualified his statement, explaining that he didn't think undocumented immigrants should receive the regular licenses that drivers receive now.

"[It] could be a provisional license, it could be a nonresident license," he said. While he acknowledged concerns that such licenses could make moving about the U.S. undetected easier for terrorists, he also pointed to the safety benefits.

"Why wouldn't you want to put people through a rigorous testing process?" he asked. "Why wouldn't you want to better identify people who are going to be here? ... It doesn't make any sense to me. And we could increase safety on the roads. When you make things illegal, you cause a lot of other things by chain reaction."

The issue is particularly relevant in Los Angeles. The Department of Homeland Security released a report in 2011 estimating that, as of January 2010, there were nearly 10.8 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., approximately 2.5 million of whom lived in California. The Pew Hispanic Center -- a project of the Pew Research Center -- reported slightly different figures, estimating 11.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, 2.5 million of which live in California.

The Public Policy Institute of California released a study in July 2011 that estimated that, in 2008, nearly a third of California's undocumented population -- 916,000 people -- lives in Los Angeles. That means 9.3 percent of the county's total population is in the country -- and on L.A. roads -- illegally.

Southside Angelenos' reactions were mixed about whether the police chief is on-target with his call for driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.

"They're not documented citizens," said John Henry, a resident of West Hollywood who works in South Los Angeles. "I'm all for as many people being able to get in and improve their life, but what I don't understand: We fund them to go to school, we give them driver's licenses -- we can't do it. It's just not right. They need to come into the country legally."

Henry said that since government officials don't punish undocumented immigrants, Beck's reasoning doesn't make sense. "What are we talking about 'keeping track'?" he asked. "That's a preposterous statement -- there's no reason to keep track of them. [Law enforcement officials] aren't going to do anything to them."

At a press conference Thursday, KPCC's Ruxandra Guidi reports, Beck stood by what he told Times writers. "Once you create this class of drivers that drive outside the law, there's no reason for them to have insurance," he said at the press conference. "There's no reason for them to have vehicles that are registered to the actual registered owner, there's no reason for them to stop at the scene of minor accidents. All of these things can be addressed by having a two-tier licensing system."

The Huffington Post reports that those "things" include uninsured drivers and "erratic driving behavior," which results in a higher rate of hit-and-run collisions.

Roberto Onofre, a Covina resident who comes to South L.A. every Thursday for the farmers market at the Central Avenue Constituent Services Center, agreed with Beck. "I think they should go forward with it," he said. "It'll benefit the community in different ways. It makes it easier for [undocumented immigrants] to drive, and it's safer, and better insurance-wise."

Onofre, who said he knows people who are undocumented, said if they had driver's licenses, it would make their lives easier as well as provide a way of keeping them accountable for their actions on the road.

Esther Pedroza, who's lived on Central Avenue for three years, said giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants would be a slippery slope. "You're undocumented, for God's sakes," she said. "You give leeway to them, they want to take more and more and more. They'll be out making demonstrations and I don't know what else. Remember: you're an illegal alien."

Pedroza advised undocumented immigrants to wait until the U.S. adjusted immigration policy to better address the huge demand for citizenship. "Don't be so quick to the judge the United States," she said. "They're pretty good to everybody."

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