L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca said he would support granting drivers licenses… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca said he would get behind a "sensible" plan to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants who have been in the country for several years without breaking any other laws.
Baca's comments Thursday came the day after Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck also expressed support for such a plan, saying that it would reduce the number of hit-and-run accidents and uninsured drivers on city roads.
Baca said such licenses should only be issued after illegal immigrants fill out comprehensive applications, similar to those for citizenship. The licenses, he said, should be up for renewal annually and be noticeably different from those issued to citizens.
"There's enough potential for Chief Beck's idea for it to be explored," Baca said.
The sheriff has expressed openness to illegal immigrants being issued driver's licenses before. A decade ago, he supported a proposal to allow the licenses but wanted them to be imprinted with a special marker such as the letter "I" for immigrant so police could determine immediately if they were dealing with someone who was in the country illegally.
At the time, the sheriff was the head of a task force helping then-Gov. Gray Davis craft a plan to allow certain unlawful immigrants to get licenses. That proposal was eventually scuttled and has floundered on the state level since.
As he pushed for the measure then, Baca pointed out that many illegal immigrants were already driving without having passed a driving test or buying auto insurance.
In an interview Thursday, Baca said he felt the campaign for licenses a decade ago failed because it was not restrictive enough about what types of illegal immigrants it would have applied to.
"You can't do this en masse and make the average citizen happy," he said.
Baca said he believes the larger issue is finding a way to regulate and legalize more immigrant labor. He said that if a sufficiently restrictive proposal for licenses gets pitched in L.A. County, he would join the effort.
Beck told The Times' editorial board this week that he expected the number of hit-and-run accidents would drop because illegal immigrants would not have to fear being caught unlicensed at the scene of accidents.
The LAPD chief's stance is certain to further agitate critics who are already upset at him for his efforts to liberalize rules on how his officers impound the cars of unlicensed drivers.
Janice Kephart, national security policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the public safety concerns raised by Baca and Beck were legitimate. But she cautioned that issuing licenses to illegal immigrants can create another set of problems for law enforcement investigating crimes because it is difficult to verify the identities of illegal immigrants who seek licenses. She added that any plan to give licenses to illegal immigrants would need to be in line with the federal Real ID Act, which, among other things, sets requirements for how states issue and authenticate identification cards.
In a brief interview this week, L.A. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich also endorsed licenses for illegal immigrants, calling it "a matter of public safety." Issuing licenses to illegal immigrants, he said, would help ensure that people on the road were capable drivers, although he added that insurance regulations would need to be tightened to combat uninsured drivers.