LOS ANGELES Californias plan, the most prominent of several pieces of legislation approved this week aimed at strengthening the rights of immigrants, marks a significant advance in the long campaign to decriminalize the day-to-day lives of millions of people here illegally.
But it also has brought new protests from critics who say the state is protecting undocumented workers at the expense of federal immigration laws.
A bill sent to Gov. Jerry Brown late Thursday had the strong backing of some top law enforcement officials, including Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca. They argued that immigrants should not fear cooperating with police or feel harassed simply because they are not legal residents.
Activists have complained for years that undocumented immigrants stopped at checkpoints targeting drunken drivers have had their cars impounded even if they are sober. Police also say these immigrants, unable to get car insurance, are involved in more hit-and-run accidents.
Kim Raney, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said his organization backed the plan only after it was amended to add various security measures. His biggest concern was that the drivers licenses could be used as identification for air travel, potentially causing problems for federal security agencies.
These licenses will include a special watermark on the front and language on the back that makes it clear this license is for driving only and not identification, said Raney.
But the larger debate is far from over. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington said the California plan amounts to a quasi-amnesty.
The whole point of immigration law is to make it impractical to stay here illegally, he said. This is doing the exact opposite. The point of this is to make it practical to live here illegally. ... What it means is the government is formally incorporating illegal aliens into institutions of our society.
Indeed, backing from law enforcement is far from universal.
I just think that if someone is in the country illegally, for us to give them a legal ability to drive makes absolutely no sense, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said.