¿“Estado de oro” o “Jaula de oro”? Undocumented Mexican Immigrant Workers, the Driver’s License, and Subnational Illegalization in California (Working Paper #86)

Hinda Seif, U.C. Institute for Labor and Employment

Abstract: Scholarship on the efforts of undocumented immigrants for recognition in receiving countries focuses on national legal identity. Yet the restoration of access to a driver’s license has emerged as a key struggle of undocumented immigrants across the US. What does the driver’s license represent to Mexican immigrants? What may we learn about changes in the enforcement of immigration laws from the driver’s license struggle? I outline the history of driver’s license legislation and enforcement in California based on participant observation, interviews and document collection at the California state legislature and Southeast Los Angeles conducted between 1999 and 2001. I focus on the imposition of new requirements to prove legal residency and provide a valid social security number to obtain a California drivers’ license during the immigration restriction movement of the early 1990s, and subsequent changes in the enforcement environment made possible by information technologies. As the lives of immigrants are increasingly regulated through anti-terrorist activities of the Department of Homeland Security, undocumented Mexican immigrant workers are also policed by local law enforcement through the monitoring of drivers. Through the story of the Ramirez family, we see how unlicensed immigrant drivers and immigrant communities are caught in a web of laws, fines, and deepening criminalization that impacts the safety of all Californians on the roads.

Working Paper #86»