Undocumented Immigrants Shouldn’t Have a ‘Scarlet Letter’ on Their License [OPINION]

Some Californians want to brand immigrants as ‘not lawfully present.’

ByABC News
September 5, 2013, 12:02 PM
Immigration activists stage a civil disobedience action, blocking a street in front of Varick Street Detention Center, in New York, August 22, 2013.
Immigration activists stage a civil disobedience action, blocking a street in front of Varick Street Detention Center, in New York, August 22, 2013.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Sept. 5, 2013— -- Every morning, when my mother leaves home to drive to work, I feel a knot in the pit of my stomach.

Will she make it back? Or will she be stopped on a whim, arrested and deported -- ripped from my family forever?

My mother is one of California's 2.6 million undocumented residents. She’s been driving as long as I can remember, taking me to music lessons as a kid or taking the whole family to church. Like most Californians, driving is the only way she can support our family and contribute to the community.

That's why Governor Brown needs to sign a bill by Assemblymember Luis Alejo that would let undocumented immigrants like my mom apply for driver’s licenses just like any other Californian.

Immigrants are part of the fabric of our state. It's common sense for all drivers on the road to be tested, licensed and insured.

And it's also common sense to have one license for all Californians.

After growing up undocumented myself, I recently qualified for a deportation reprieve under the "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" program, and I'm proud to have the same driver’s license that all other Californians have.

But some people want to change this driver’s license bill, called AB 60, to require a "scarlet letter"-type marking on licenses for undocumented immigrants like my mom.

Whether the license singles the person out as "not lawfully present" or oddly claims to be "not for identification purposes," an extra marking would be unfair and unsafe.

At a time when momentum is building for inclusive immigration policies that bring folks out of the shadows, why would we stamp an invitation to discrimination on millions of driver’s licenses?

Walk – or drive – a mile in my mom’s shoes: you've lived in this country for decades, but there's simply no line for you to get in for legal status. Finally, AB 60 passes. You've been driving carefully for years so you ace the test, and immediately get a license and insurance.

But right on top of your new license, you find the words: "not lawfully present."

This “scarlet letter” means a lot of things most people take for granted when they present their license or ID will be fraught with danger.

Cashing a check to buy groceries at the store? You show your “not lawfully present” license. Will a prejudiced clerk lash out at you?

Renting an apartment? You send in a copy of your license with your application, and the "not lawfully present" mark is clear as day. Will an unscrupulous landlord threaten to call immigration if you complain about poor living conditions?

And what happens if you are stopped for a traffic violation?

Right now, even a minor or unjustified arrest can lead to extended detention in local jail and then deportation under the misnamed “Secure Communities” deportation program. Tens of thousands of families have been destroyed that way.

Another important state bill moving forward this year would curb the risk of deportation for minor arrests – but nonetheless, that “not lawfully present” marker is an invitation for harassment from abusive law enforcement officials.

I believe most Californians value diversity and inclusion, and that most police officers are committed to protecting all residents. But we also need to recognize profiling is a reality people live with every day.

Those few voices in law enforcement that want to target immigrant community members should not be setting policy here in the Golden State, which has the nation's largest population of aspiring citizens.

So let's pass one license for all this year. California wouldn't even be the first state to do so -- both Washington State and New Mexico have established a successful model offering the same licenses for all residents.

On a practical level, one license for all will ensure all drivers are properly tested and can get insurance, making roads safer. On a moral level, it will protect people like my mom from discrimination and ultimately honor the fundamental principle that all people are created equal.

Maria Genis is a DACAmented immigrant youth from Watsonville, California. She came to the U.S. from Puebla, Mexico, at the age of 12 and is currently enrolled at Cabrillo College.