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SACRAMENTO – Advocates for illegal immigrants sought answers Friday about whether California will issue driver's licenses to those in the state illegally if they qualify for President Obama's two-year reprieve from deportation.
Officials at the state Department of Motor Vehicles told some reporters they would give out the licenses, and a state Assemblyman said Friday that the DMV director had told him that as well.
But DMV representatives late Friday would say only that the agency was still reviewing the issue.
The Obama administration plans to give temporary work permits to some immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children. As many as 350,000 people in California could benefit from that program, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute inWashington, D.C.
DMV officials initially told the Contra Costa Times and the San Diego Union Tribune that the work permits, once issued, could be used to obtain a driver's license. Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) said DMV Director George Valverde told him the same thing Friday.
Valverde did not return phone calls or emails from The Times, and his spokesman said things were unclear.
"No one has yet been approved" for the president's program, Mike Marando, deputy director of the DMV, said in a statement. "It is not absolutely certain what documents successful applicants will be issued by the federal government."
Marando had told the Contra Costa Times earlier in the week that the DMV would accept the federal paperwork as sufficient to qualify residents for driver's licenses as temporary legal residents.
Gov. Jerry Brown's office declined to comment on the politically sensitive issue.
"The administration is reviewing the implications for the state," spokesman Gil Duran said in an email.
Cedillo said he was pleased by what Valverde told him. The lawmaker has tried unsuccessfully for several years to pass legislation that would grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and was poised to reintroduce a bill to help clarify the DMV's authority.
Ensuring that all drivers are licensed is "an important first step to make sure we have safe highways," Cedillo said.
The assemblyman said it makes sense to require illegal immigrants to undergo the licensing process before driving a car. In addition, licensed drivers are required to have auto insurance, he noted.
Many young immigrants have jobs or want to get jobs, and it is vital that they be able to drive, said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "For a young immigrant, having a license to drive is to expand their world tenfold," Cabrera said.
Others were critical of what they viewed as a possible policy shift. A 1993 state law bars illegal immigrants from obtaining licenses.
"The DMV is defying the Legislature and the will of the majority of Californians who think this policy is wrong," said state Sen. Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale). Licensing illegal immigrants would be "rewarding illegal behavior and sending the wrong message."
California has the largest share of the 1.76 million people nationwide who are potentially qualified for the new federal program, said Michelle Mittelstadt, a spokeswoman for the Migration Policy Institute.
The debate in California follows a recent executive order by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer prohibiting the issuance of driver's licenses to those who receive the federal work permit in her state.
To qualify for the permit, and the deportation reprieve that comes with it, applicants must have no criminal record. They must be enrolled in school, have graduated from high school or have served in theU.S. military. They also must be younger than 31 and have come to the U.S. before age 16.
Some legal experts said the federal program does appear to provide immigrants with sufficient standing for the state to legally issue them a driver's license. State law says licenses may be given to those who "submit satisfactory proof that the applicant's presence in the United States is authorized" under federal law.
"I think it's clear that deferred-action recipients are in the United States with federal government authorization," said Hiroshi Motomura, a UCLA law professor who specializes in immigration issues.