There are an estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, with about 2.5 million of them living here in California.
Many of them drive.
For anyone who works, especially in rural areas that aren't served by public transit, driving is practically a necessity. If drivers are untrained, or inadequately trained, they're a threat to everyone else on the road — other drivers, passengers, bicyclists, pedestrians.
Authorizing the state Department of Motor Vehicles to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants isn't a reward for violating the law. It's a safeguard for everyone else.
AB 60, the driver's license bill, passed in the final hours of the legislative session, with support from prominent law enforcement officials as well as immigrant rights groups. Gov. Jerry Brown has signaled his intention to sign the bill.
Brown hopes it will push Congress to finally address immigration.
"Because Congress has been so slow, I think they need a good push, and that's what I think this driver's license bill does," he said last week in San Francisco. "It says California recognizes these human beings are very important to our communities, to our economy and hopefully the people in Washington will get the message."
On that count, Brown probably is too optimistic. By all appearances, Congress needs a lot more than a jump-start.
Even if Washington does nothing, AB 60 can make California safer.
To obtain a license, drivers must demonstrate their skills behind the wheel and pass a written test on safety rules and the state vehicle code.
Many law enforcement officials believe a license law will result in fewer hit-and-run accidents. It also might alleviate a variety of concerns about vehicle impounds.
At sobriety checkpoints and traffic stops, police impound cars from unlicensed drivers for 30 days. Immigrant rights groups say storage fees are so high that many people abandon impounded cars, making it harder for them to get to work. In response, many police agencies, including those in Sonoma County, have eased their impound policies, which prompted a new round of complaints, including some from law enforcement officers.
Avoiding costly impounds is a strong incentive to obtain a license. If police routinely impounded cars from uninsured drivers, instead of issuing citations, that might cut further into the number of hit-and-run accidents — and provide an incentive to buy insurance.
Issuing licenses won't be a panacea. Unlicensed drivers still will be on the road. Some people won't risk acknowledging their immigration status — the new licenses will be marked to distinguish them from regular licenses — just as some have eschewed a new federal program that offers temporary residency to noncitizens who were brought to the United States as children by parents who entered the country illegally.
Only Congress can address the larger issues of immigration, but California has a responsibility to protect the public. A legislative analysis estimated that as many as 1.4 million people will be properly trained and licensed if AB 60 takes effect, which will make the roads safer for everyone.