California’s Missteps in Designing Drivers’ Licenses for the Undocumented

freewayNeed an example of the ambiguous, half-recognized place that undocumented persons hold in the U.S. today? Look no farther than reports of California officials’ recent efforts to come up with a design for a drivers’ license, to be available to undocumented residents of this state under the terms of a new law passed last year.

The designers were, in essence, tasked with creating a card that would be distinctly different from the drivers’ license carried by ordinary residents—which, in the absence of a national identity document, is often seen as the practical equivalent to a national identity document—but not a card that screams, “Illegal alien!” to anyone who might then be prompted toward discrimination and harassment.

The first try unfortunately failed to pass muster with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The feds deemed California’s card design, which had the code “DP” (for “driver’s privilege” rather than “driver’s license”) on the front, and the words “This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes” on the back, to be too subtle. They want the latter wording moved to the front.

So, it’s back to the drawing board for the designers. I don’t envy them this task. They’re creating a card that represents layers of possible meaning, including, “I have an acknowledged place in this state, I have passed the driving exam, my rights have been recognized in other ways (such as that to attend public schools and be fairly treated by employers), but by the way, I don’t have lawful immigration status.”

Immigration reform, anyone?