A law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown late Sunday night qualifying hundreds of thousands of undocumented Californians for drivers' licenses found a lukewarm response from the young immigrants it is supposed to benefit.
"We're tired of being used -- as Dreamers, as immigrant youth -- as a political football," said Carlos Amador, who said the bill was symbolic and does little that is not long-standing policy at the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
The bill, AB 2189, was one of the last of hundreds Brown signed before his midnight Sunday deadline and made national news within hours. It links California to a new Obama administration "deferred action" deportation relief policy granting work permits to illegal immigrants no older than 30 who came to the United States as children.
The California bill makes clear that anyone approved for an Obama administration work permit can now get a state driver's license.
"President Obama has recognized the unique status of these students, and making them eligible to apply for driver's licenses is an obvious next step," said Brown spokesman Gil Duran, in a written release Monday.
Some 400,000 Californians could be eligible for the federal work permits, but experts and activists said they probably didn't need the new legislation to get a license.
"They almost positively could have gotten driver's licenses regardless," said Angela Chan of the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus. "In California, you need a Social Security number (to get a license), and with deferred action you can get a Social Security number."
Many of the activists are upset that Brown appealed to immigrant and Latino communities with a passable but seemingly unnecessary license bill while simultaneously vetoing more controversial legislation, such as two bills proposed by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, that would have expanded the labor rights of domestic workers and restricted deportations of people arrested for minor crimes.
"Good for you on the driver's licenses," said Ammiano, but "lip service is not what we want. We want real policy."
Democrats who sponsored the driver's license bill said no was certain when the bill was proposed more than a month ago what documents the Obama administration would be distributing.
"We didn't want to wait" for the state to have to navigate those obstacles, said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who co-sponsored the license bill with Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles.
"We know the way California is designed it is very difficult to function here without being able to drive," Skinner said.
DMV spokesman Mike Marando acknowledged that existing regulations would allow newly sanctioned immigrants with Obama administration paperwork to get a license, but he said Brown's signature codifies those rules and standardizes them in case the federal government changes its forms.
Still, Brown's choices disappointed youth advocates hoping he would take a bigger stand on immigration policy in his weekend bill signing. "The driver's license bill was a symbol more than anything," said Blanca Vasquez, a San Francisco State student without legal residency who has lived in the United States since her infancy. "It was a big distraction."
The bill won Brown no accolades on the other side of the aisle. Although a handful of Republican lawmakers joined Democrats in backing the bill, others said driving is an important state benefit that only legal residents should enjoy.
"I think Gov. Brown just made our state less safe, and he made a mockery of the California driver's license," said Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks.