Police officers run identity checks at a sobriety checkpoint in Escondido, CAEnlarge Photo
If you're an illegal immigrant to the U.S. and you live in California, life is about to get a tiny bit better. As of Sunday, if you're stopped at a checkpoint, the police will no longer be able to tow your vehicle so long as you're not violating any other laws.
Until 1993, undocumented immigrants could get driver's licenses in California. That's when the state's financial woes led to the passage of SB 976, which required that anyone applying for a license provide a Social Security number and proof that their residency was "authorized under federal law".
The rationale behind SB 976 was basically two-fold. Supporters argued that, first and foremost, it was about safety, ensuring that people couldn't receive an official California ID without going through the proper channels. Many also insisted that folks entering the U.S. illegally shouldn't receive the privilege of driving.
The law was instantly controversial, and legislators like California State Senator Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) spent years fighting it. In fact, Cedillo's SB 60, which returned driving privileges to undocumented immigrants, was partially responsible for the recall of California Governor Gray Davis in 2003 and the arrival of the Governator. Schwarzenegger repealed the law less than a month after being sworn into office.
That left illegal immigrants without license to drive, and -- thanks to a 1995 state law -- it gave municipalities the authority to impound the vehicles of unlicensed drivers for 30 days. Some cities allowed offenders a few minutes to contact someone with a license before towing vehicles; others impounded vehicles immediately. Once a car was towed, it quickly racked up fees, which many undocumented workers were unable to pay.
For a range of reasons -- not least of which is the hodgepodge way in which that 1995 law was implemented -- the tide has turned again, and Cedillo has passed a new bill that takes effect on January 1. As of that day, police officers can no longer impound vehicles being driven by unlicensed drivers, so long as not having a license is the driver's only offense. (If a driver is drunk or breaking other laws, however, towing remains an option.)
The good, the bad
Folks opposed to the new law complain that it gives unlicensed drivers little more than a slap on the wrist. That argument isn't without merit. In many ways, the situation was better and safer before 1993, when illegal immigrants could receive a driver's license after passing the usual battery of tests. At least then the government knew that drivers were capable of operating a vehicle properly.
On the other hand, there's no denying that there are a huge number of undocumented immigrants in California, and that they're an important part of the workforce -- a workforce that doesn't take away jobs from U.S. citizens, according to many economists. Current state law leaves those workers in limbo, allowing them to work under the table but doling out fairly severe punishment when they're caught. Proponents of the new law claim that although the new law doesn't create an easier means for illegal immigrants to obtain legal residency status, it does make life a little less harsh for them.
Supporters also argue that with their vehicles impounded, immigrants often have to give up their jobs. That leaves more people unemployed and impoverished, which in turn strains social service organizations, medical clinics, and many government agencies. That's bad news for cash-strapped states like California.
We're split on this. We certainly understand the importance of immigration laws and providing legal channels for immigrants to obtain U.S. citizenship. However, we also understand the realities of the situation -- namely, that many industries thrive on undocumented laborers, and that there are millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S. Deporting them all isn't feasible, nor is providing blanket amnesty. Until the larger question of immigration is settled, California's new law still leaves everyone in the lurch.