Undocumented immigrants may get driver's licenses

SAN DIEGO - Hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants may soon be getting California driver's licenses.

Grossmont College student Monserrat Ramerez takes the bus to school every day for two hours in each direction because she is undocumented.

"I study," she said. "I do homework if I didn't finish it."

She is a freshman at Grossmont College. Her bus drops her off in front of the campus. She rarely strays from that route – in or out of school – because it is her only way around.

"With a driver's license, I can get a job basically anywhere," she said. "I won't have to worry about catching the bus or being late."

Ramerez could soon get driving privileges. She is among those who have applied for a new federal program that temporarily defers deportation and grants work permits to people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. California has the largest number of potential applicants.

The new immigration policy has brought to the forefront the long-running and bitter debate over whether illegal immigrants should have access to driver's licenses. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that each state could determine whether to issue licenses or extend other benefits to young immigrants who qualify for the deferred status.

Some states, such as Oregon and Georgia, have announced that they will grant driving privileges to those eligible for the new program. Others, such as Arizona and Mississippi, have vowed to deny them.

Some California lawmakers still agree with the latter.

"I'm getting phone calls from people who are trying to get here and get their citizenship legally and they're saying, 'What about us?'" said Assemblyman Dan Logue, who represents Chico. "Why are people being moved to the front of the line and getting benefits we're trying to get?"

California legislators this month approved a bill that would allow an estimated 450,000 eligible young immigrants in the state to use the federal work permits at the Department of Motor Vehicles as proof of lawful presence in the country. The bill is now headed to the governor.

Ramerez hopes she can soon do her studying from somewhere other than a bus seat.

"Seeing towards my future... in a couple of months, if everything works out great, I will be able to work and pay my college tuition," she said.

It will be at least a few weeks before Ramerez will know if she was approved for the program.

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