Supporters: Driver’s license for illegal immigrants a step in the right direction

Carlos Gonzalez picks bell peppers Friday in a field off Hecker Pass Highway for local farmer Dan Fiorio.

With an estimated 70 percent, or 4,200 of the 6,000 agricultural workers in Santa Clara and San Benito counties lacking proper documentation, proposed state legislation granting all undocumented immigrants the ability to attain a driver’s license has been well-received at the local level.
“I think it’s a positive for the industry, but nowhere near as significant as comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level,” said Executive Director Jennifer Scheer of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau.
Assembly Bill 60, The Safe and Responsible Driver Act that passed through the State legislature earlier this month, will “make is easier for employees to get to work,” but there’s still the overarching problem of getting more agriculture employees in the country, according to Sheer.
Of the 1,068 farms in Santa Clara County according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, many have been impacted by a dwindling number of field workers over the last five years due to numerous failed attempts to reform federal immigration policies and a record number of deportations in 2012.
Currently, undocumented immigrants are forbidden from driving in the state according to the California vehicle code, because all drivers are required to have U.S. Social Security number or other federal taxpayer identification number in order to be issued a California DMV driver’s license.
AB60 amends the law for undocumented immigrants as long as the applicant can provide verifiable documentation of their identity and residency in the state.
Authored by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, AB60 passed Sept. 12 out of the State Senate with a vote of 28-8 and was approved by the State Assembly with a vote of 55-19.
“This bill will enable millions of people to get to work safely and legally,” said Gov. Jerry Brown in a Sept. 12 statement. He has until Oct. 13 to sign the legislation and has stated that he intends to do so.
“Hopefully, it will send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due,” said Brown.
In the past, anyone found to be driving without a license was subject to a misdemeanor charge that can lead to probation for up to three years, up to six months in county jail, a maximum fine of $1,000, and/or a possible 30-day impound of the owner’s vehicle, the code states.
“With AB60 we are recognizing the needs of many hard-working immigrants living here and contributing so much to our great state,” Alejo said in a statement. “Immigrants who drive legally are more likely to work, spend and contribute to the economy.”
Director Christa Hansen of the Learning and Loving Education Center in Morgan Hill, established in 1994 to teach skills, foster hope and provide direction to adult immigrant women and their children, agreed that AB60 “will be a great relief for those that presently don’t have a driver’s license.”
Like Scheer, Hansen underscored AB60 as just one step in the right direction. She hopes it is “one of many future [pieces of] legislation that will help immigrants.”
Captain Jerry Neumayer of the Morgan Hill Police Department said officers occasionally pull over undocumented immigrants who are unlicensed drivers, but in some cases those drivers at least have vehicle registration and insurance.
“I believe (the new legislation) is going to help us in law enforcement. It makes our job easier,” said Neumayer. “It provides a definitive piece of legislation that we can choose to enforce or not enforce. There’s no more gray areas.”
A 2012 study by the California Department of Motor Vehicles found that unlicensed drivers were three times more likely to suffer fatal crashes. A similar AAA study conducted in 2011 found that unlicensed drivers were five times more likely to cause a fatal accident, and more likely to flee the scene of the crash.
More undocumented immigrants live in California than any other state – 2.6 million in 2010, accounting for 6.8 percent of the population and 9.7 percent of the labor force, according to Pew Hispanic Center.
Within the last year, nine states and the District of Columbia as well as Puerto Rico have passed legislation giving all undocumented immigrants the right to legally drive.
In those nine states, (Connecticut, Colorado, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Illinois, Washington, Nevada and Utah) plus the District of Columbia, licenses given to undocumented immigrants have a special mark and notation, including “DP” (driver’s privilege) instead of “DL” (driver’s license). In California, the license would include a notation that states, “does not establish eligibility for employment or public benefit.”
With this piece of immigration reform successfully underway, Scheer directs attention to the bigger picture.
“This is a state-wide measure and the changes we’d like to see are at the federal level,” explained Scheer, whose Morgan Hill office listens to many concerns from local farmers about a depleted work force.
The agricultural work force has been “very tight the last two or three years,” she continued. “Before that, it was very tight, in 2006. It’s been an ongoing problem for years and years.”
Following the 2012 harvest, California Farm Bureau officials conducted a voluntary survey of more than 700 California farmers – and while their crops were varied, the responses were not: Last year, 71 percent of growers saw a shortage of workers during their harvest seasons.
Local farmer Ralph Santos, who owns Ralph’s Cherry Hut in Gilroy, isn’t sure if AB60 will impact the current agricultural workforce for the better.
“I don’t know if it’s going to change things much one way or another,” he said. “If they want to work, if there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Santos also underlined a possible negative effect for local farmers, speculating the possibility that newly licensed immigrant drivers who would normally stay in the area for employment might now drive elsewhere for work.
“Instead of saying, ‘we’re in Gilroy so we’re going to work in Gilroy,’ now they may have car and say, ‘I can go to Morgan Hill or San Jose,’” Santos theorized. “So this might not give us more people because it does make them more mobile.”
With less workers in the fields, agriculture productivity throughout California has steadily declined since 2011, according to Bryan Little, Director of Labor Affairs for the California Farm Bureau.
For Santa Clara County, 90 percent of the area’s $247 million in annual agricultural revenue for 2011 came from South County, which includes Morgan Hill, Gilroy and unincorporated areas such as San Martin.
Scheer hopes AB60 will make “our community safer as a whole” since “it will put more insured drivers on the road.”

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