The California Department of Motor Vehicles expected some 1.4 million undocumented people would apply for driver’s licenses under AB-60, a 2013 law that allows undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license. AB60 finally took effect in January–and the response has been overwhelming. 

Jean Shiomoto, who directs the California DMV, says the agency expected about half million applicants by July 2015. It’s only April and 493,998 have already applied–double the expected amount for the first quarter of the year. Of those who have have applied and taken the driving test 203,000 have been approved.

Still, the process, which has been touted by the DMV and immigrant rights groups as a positive step that will improve the state’s economy while increasing safety, is lengthy and costly, and at least one person has been arrested after applying.

Licenses all but indicate immigration status

One of the big caveats about AB-60 is that it marks the license with “FEDERAL LIMITS APPLY” in all capital letters. If police pull over a license-holder in California or any other state their immigration status will be on display.

Alma Mérida, a 24-year-old from Los Angeles who drove without a license for about two years–mostly to pick her little brother up from school–received her license under AB-60. She’s relieved that she’s authorized to drive in California but dreads the day she’s pulled over. “Before, I used to think it would be bad if I got pulled over but now they’ll know for sure that I’m undocumented. I just hope I don’t get a racist cop.” 

California authorities are legally barred from discriminating against any driver using an AB-60 license. But federal Border Patrol agents who staff internal checkpoints in cities including San Diego could use the license to ascertain immigration status.

A long process

To apply for an AB-60 license, undocumented immigrants originally from Mexico need only to provide one form of identification including a Mexican voting card, passport or consular card.

For undocumented immigrants applying for licenses from other countries, it gets more difficult: Undocumented people originally from Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Peru have to provide a national identification card and a birth certificate. Those originally from Brazil have to provide a consular card and birth certificate. Guatemalans can provide their choice of either a national identification card or a consular card, along with their birth certificates. All other undocumented people have to present a foreign passport and birth certificate.

According to the DMV, close to 10 percent of applicants–more than 45,000 people–lack the proper documents to apply for AB-60. 

Obtaining these documents can a lengthy process. According to the DMV, a birth certificate must be a certified copy issued by a national civil registry within six months of applying for an AB-60 license. The birth certificates must contain an embedded photo of the applicant, but not every issuing country uses photos.

The alternative is to have a birth certificate translated, submitted for “apostille authentication,” and sent to the country’s consulate. Then applicants wait for that country to approve and return the document. 

Don’t know what “apostille authentication” is? Neither did Juan, a 31-year-old from Chile who asked that we not use his last name becaue he feared that federal immigration authorities would mark him for deportation. “It means a really specific kind of certification that they got from an international treaty,” says Juan. He says he hasn’t gotten around to getting his birth certificate and applying for AB-60 because he simply can’t afford the fees. (The license costs about $30; the birth certificate could wind up costing more than $100.) “I’m sticking to the BART,” he says, referring to the Bay Area’s public transportation system.  

A “secondary review” could trigger felony charges and deportation

The DMV says that 17,142 people who have applied for driver’s licenses under AB-60 have the option to undergo “secondary review.” This process for people who can’t get the proper identification includes an interview with a DMV investigator. So far, only about 4,000 people have responded and only 416 applicants have completed the review and been referred to a field office to take exams. It’s unclear how many have taken or passed the exams.

“I’m a strong supporter of AB-60, but I’m not sure everyone knows the risks,” says Alex Galvez, a Los Angeles-based immigration attorney. “For anyone with a prior deportation, individuals who have been convicted of minor crimes and individuals who have possibly used a fake state documents to obtain a driver’s license in the past, applying [under AB60] are putting themselves at risk of deportation.”

Minor crimes include DUI and petty theft. Galvez says that since federal immigration authorities could use the AB-60 database to locate people for deportation. But it doesn’t even have to get that far; local authorities can pursue deportation as soon as someone submits to a secondary review.

One of Galvez’s clients, who he would not name for this story, scheduled and attended a secondary review hearing that resulted in his arrest. “My client in the past had used a fake document to apply and obtain for a driver’s license,” explains Galvez. The client was informed that he needed to go to a DMV investigative office in order to complete his application. “He answered the questions that were asked of him, admitting that he used a fake document in the past, and it was there and then that he was arrested.”  

Galvez’s client was questioned by DMV officials, arrested by local police and charged with perjury–a deportable felony. The DMV won’t comment on individual cases, but it denies that any AB-60 applicants have been arrested as a result of secondary review. But Galvez’s client’s arrest record indicates he was detained at a local DMV station.

Galvez worked to get his client bonded out as soon as possible–the longer he was in jail, the higher the likelihood that federal immigration authorities would take him into custody and place him in detention.

Galvez says his client may avoid detention because DMV officials didn’t read him his rights; whatever he told the agency might not be admissible. 

AB-60 applications make sense for most undocumented drivers, but the marked license, the process, as well as the potential risks are still leaving some undocumented immigrants by the wayside.