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Should an undocumented immigrant get a driver’s license in California?

Posted by Neil Shouse | May 22, 2018 | 0 Comments

As of January 1, 2015, undocumented immigrants have been able to get a driver's license in California. Known as an “AB 60 license,” it is available from the California DMV without a social security number to immigrants who can prove they are California residents.

An AB60 license allows an undocumented immigrant to:

  • Drive legally in California, and
  • Safely identify themselves to state and local law enforcement.

To date, more than one million undocumented immigrants have received AB60 driver's licenses.

Should I get an AB license in California?

Whether an undocumented immigrant should get a California AB 60 license is a personal decision.

The Trump administration's crackdown on unlawful immigration has made this a closer call than it used to be.

But, in general, we still recommend getting an AB60 license if:

  • You will be driving in California,
  • You do not have a serious criminal history,
  • You have never obtained a license using a fake name or social security number, and
  • ICE is not currently and specifically looking for you.

Is it safe for an undocumented immigrant to apply for a driver's license?

If an immigrant has not violated the law, it is generally safe to apply for a driver's license. Under California law, state and local law enforcement agencies may not:

  • Discriminate against a holder of an AB-60 license, or
  • Use such a license as a basis for “investigation, arrest, citation or detention.”

But an immigrant may still be arrested in any situation in which someone who is here lawfully could be arrested.

For instance, if someone had previously used a fake name or social security number to get a license, that person could be charged under California's fraud laws.

Or a driver was weaving and smelled of alcohol, an officer could lawfully arrest that person for drunk driving.

Can the DMV share my immigration status with federal authorities?

Yes, but only if it gets a specific request from the Department of Homeland Security.

So if ICE is already looking for someone, the DMV can provide DHS with the person's address and photo.

Otherwise, the DMV will not tell the federal government an immigrant is seeking a license.

How does California's new “sanctuary state” law affect drivers?

Thanks to Senate Bill 54, California became a so-called “sanctuary state” on January 1, 2018. As a result, state and local law enforcement officers may not generally:

  • Ask about someone's immigration status; or
  • Share information about someone's status with federal immigration authorities (except in limited circumstances).

This means that local and state law enforcement officers cannot notify federal authorities when presented with an AB60 license.

What happens if I drive without a license?

Driving without a license can be charged as either:

  • A non-criminal infraction, or
  • A criminal misdemeanor.

An infraction is similar to a parking ticket. It can be punished only by a fine. This is usually how a first conviction for driving without a license is charged.

But, this is not guaranteed. And subsequent convictions are more likely to be charged as a misdemeanor. This can result in a higher fine and possibly time in jail. It would also give the driver a criminal record.

Can driving without a license get an undocumented immigrant deported?

In California, the answer is “no.” But that doesn't necessarily mean the immigrant won't be charged with removal. It only means that the immigrant should be able to win in immigration court.

This might involve fighting the case.

We think it's better and safer for an immigrant to drive lawfully in the first place.

An immigrant who cannot do so should consider other means of transportation.

The limitations of an AB60 license

An AB 60 license is not valid for official federal purposes. In fact, the words “Federal Limits Apply” are marked clearly in the upper right-hand corner.

As a result, it does not allow an immigrant to obtain employment or government benefits.

More importantly, it does not protect the holder against discrimination from:

  • Federal law enforcement agencies, or
  • Law enforcement officers from other states.

Thus it should not ever be presented to federal officials, including:

  • United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), or
  • The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) (when taking a flight leaving from or arriving in a U.S. city).

And undocumented immigrants should never tell a law enforcement officer about their status without first speaking to a lawyer.

To learn more, please see our article on “Driving Without a License in California.”

Or call us for a free consultation at 1-855-LawFirm if you believe you were wrongly arrested.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

Southern California DUI Defense attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT).

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