The federal government has rejected California's initial design for new driver's licenses to be offered to immigrants in the country illegally, saying the cards fall short of security safeguards.
Immigrant advocates embrace the licenses as a way to ensure immigrants can drive safely and without fear of reprisals. But they have expressed concern about what exactly the licenses will look like, fearing visually distinct licenses will amount to a scarlet letter branding the holder as being in the U.S. unlawfully.
That worry clashes with federal guidelines intended to guard against counterfeit or fraudulent documents. The REAL ID Act, passed in 2005, established minimum standards for drivers licenses and stipulated that licenses for residents without legal status must bear a distinctive marking. In Illinois, for example, immigrant drivers licenses carry a purple band.
California's solution was to have the licenses include the marking "DP," for "driver's privilege," rather than the standard "DL" signifying "driver's license," and language saying the card is ineligible for federal purposes. That did not pass muster.
Instead, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security suggested more obvious markings, like a distinct color scheme or prominent language stating "in machine readable code that it is not acceptable for official Federal purposes."
The DMV will need to reconfigure the design. The bill launching the new licenses requires California to offer the cards by the start of 2015, and the California Latino Legislative Caucus has already urged the agency to hurry things up.
Reacting to Tuesday's news, the caucus released a statement calling the federal repudiation "disappointing and troubling."
"We strongly believe that the design submitted by California satisfies the intent of the law, by including a distinctive mark on the front, and the required statement on the surface of the license," the 24-member caucus' statement said.
The California DMV also released a statement vowing to press forward.
"While we are disappointed by this ruling, the DMV will continue to work vigorously with lawmakers, affected communities and federal officials to design a license that complies with federal law and allows over a million undocumented California residents to drive legally and safely on state roads," the statement said.
Editor's note: This post was updated at 3:01 p.m. to include the California Latino Legislative Caucus statement.
PHOTO: The DMV office on La Mancha Way in South Sacramento, on Wednesday June 27, 2007. The Sacramento Bee/Randall Benton.