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California weighs immigrant license requirements

SANTA ANA — Immigrants who are in the United States illegally are often called "undocumented" despite carrying a long list of papers: passports, consular ID cards, birth certificates from their home countries, and those of their children born here.

The question remains which documents will constitute a golden ticket for them to be able to apply for long-awaited driver's licenses in the Golden State next year.

California officials are trying to strike a balance between having a secure license and making it accessible to immigrants who are currently prohibited from driving. The key is ensuring immigrants prove they are who they claim to be and preventing fraud without making the requirements so onerous that people give up on trying to get a license.

"We can't make it too restrictive," said Jan Mendoza, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Motor Vehicles. "But we have to have the integrity of, this person is who they are and this person lives in California."

California has proposed allocating $67 million in next year's budget to issue the licenses. The state plans to open five dedicated offices and hire up to 1,000 temporary workers to process roughly 1.4 million applications expected over the program's first three years, said Lizette Mata, deputy director of special projects at the DMV.

California may be the biggest, but it's hardly the first state to grapple with the issue. Eleven states have enacted laws to issue driver's licenses to immigrants in the country illegally, many of them over the last year, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

To obtain a license in California, immigrants will have to prove their identity and that they reside in the state, sign an affidavit, and pass written and road tests like other drivers. The licenses will contain a distinct marking and cannot be used as federal identification.

Immigrant advocates are urging state officials to keep an open mind on documents that could prove an immigrant's identity, such as foreign driver's licenses or voting cards. Some suggest that immigrants ought to be able to use their children's U.S. birth certificates, school records or baptismal records to demonstrate their own identity.

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