Immigrant Rights Central to Labor’s Agenda

I started out as an immigrant rights advocate on the heels of the passage of Proposition 187 and during the Pete Wilson administration.  Those were difficult times for the immigrant rights movement.  Voters had passed the most draconian anti-immigrant initiative to date, racist anti-immigrant commercials filled our airwaves, and the fear mongering fomented hate toward immigrants.  And the Legislature had passed a new law requiring social security numbers to get a driver’s license, effectively barring undocumented immigrants from eligibility. 

Over the past 20 years, multiple attempts to eliminate the immigration restrictions for a driver’s license have failed. I worked on AB 1463 in 1999 from the immigrant rights side, which was passed by the Legislature and then vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis.  I worked on SB 60 in 2003 from the Labor side, which was signed into law by Gov. Davis and then repealed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004. 

The Labor movement has consistently supported driver’s licenses for all Californians.  It is a matter of economics – immigrant workers need to be able to get to and from work.  They need to be able to get their kids to school, get to the store, to church, to soccer, get anywhere in car-centric California. Immigrant drivers need to be able to drive without fear of getting their cars impounded or caught in an immigration hold, facing deportation and separation from their families.

When this issue resurfaced this year in AB 60 (Alejo), we agreed that it was long overdue to allow all immigrant workers to get a driver’s license. 

Then, amendments were taken to AB 60 to require the immigrant driver’s license to have a recognizable mark on its face.  It didn’t say how big or how small a mark, it left total discretion to the DMV to decide.  Nothing in the amendments would have prohibited an anti-immigrant administration from using a giant “IMMIGRANT” stamp across the undocumented license. Such discretion created too much opening for political whims to put immigrants in a dangerous position. 

When we further analyzed the amendments to AB 60, we realized that (1) it made immigrant drivers licenses discretionary from the DMV thanks to the dreaded “may” vs. “shall” verbiage that's become a popular legislative tactic, (2) it lacked anti-discrimination protections for the private sector, (3) it lacked confidentiality protections for immigrant applicants, and (4) it required immigrants to sign an affidavit under penalty of perjury that they were undocumented. That version of AB 60, as amended on September 6, was a dangerous bill that could hold severe consequences for immigrants.

The Labor Movement joined civil rights groups and immigrant rights organizations to adopt an OPPOSE position on AB 60. Together, we urged amendment language that took away DMV discretion to issue immigrant licenses, broadened the anti-discrimination and confidentiality language, removed the penalty of perjury language, and tied down the marking on the license to be as subtle as possible. 

Ultimately, almost all of the amendments suggested by Labor and immigrant rights organizations were taken, because the Latino Caucus of the legislature agreed stronger protections for immigrant workers were needed for the bill.   

The September 12 version of AB 60 contains several more protections for immigrants compared to the earlier version -– privacy, confidentiality, marking and anti-discrimination. Without the amendments we fought for, immigrants would have been vulnerable to continued harassment, profiling and immigration holds. Labor and our allies won significant protections for immigrant workers and helped make AB 60 a better bill.

I joined the Labor Movement with the hopes of continuing to be an immigrant rights advocate. I hoped I could continue to fight for the rights of all immigrants with the strength of the Labor movement behind me. This hope proves to be true every day.  The Labor movement is committed to full rights, dignity and respect for all immigrants. And together with our allies, we will win comprehensive immigration reform.