American Times: Los Angeles - A licence to thrill for a legal alien

FOR THE past year, I have been driving in California without a licence. Or, to be more precise, without a licence that any ordinary American would recognise.

Ever since I arrived in America I have been hankering after one of those laminated plastic identity cards, complete with photo, that would give me instant legitimacy as a resident foreigner and let me leave my passport at home every once in a while. A bona fide Californian licence would save a lot of bother at car rental desks, stop any roving highway patrolman from asking too many time-consuming questions and provide instant reassurance to those pesky bartenders and liquor store salesmen who occasionally try to ruin my evening by alleging I'm under 21.

But, for the past year, I've had no luck. It's not for lack of trying. I dutifully took my Californian driving test, memorising every last stopping distance in the highway code booklet and mastering the peculiarities of white, yellow, red, blue and green pavement markings. My dour examiner for the practical test had the good grace to pass me even though I'd gone 34 miles per hour in a 25mph zone.

But the licence would not come. At the driving centre, they gave me a scrappy computer print-out that expired in three weeks, saying the full document would be on its way shortly. It never arrived. I went back to renew my computer print-out once, then twice, then three times.

The problem, I was told, was that the Department of Motor Vehicles was obliged by law to check my residency status with the immigration service. And the immigration service wasn't getting back to them. Why not? They couldn't say.

My frustration, as it turned out, provided a tiny insight into a far broader problem. Five years ago, California became one of just a handful of states to require proof of legal residency before issuing driving licences.

The change in policy was an explicit attempt to crack down on immigration of all kinds, aimed not only at weeding out illegal aliens but at making life as hard as possible for foreigners without a legitimate reason to be in California.

A wait of six months or more for a driving licence is absolutely typical for a white European like me. For a Mexican, it is likely to be far longer. Green cards, marriage visas and other documents are also being held up for months, if not years. Civil rights activists accuse the Immigration and Naturalisation Service of deliberate procrastination; the INS has not made serious efforts to rebut the charge.

Where a delayed licence causes irritation for someone like me, it can make life hell for Latino immigrants of uncertain legal status. There are millions of them in California, doing the dirty jobs nobody else wants to do, and in a city like Los Angeles they are simply compelled to drive if they want to make a living.

Before 1994, nearly all of them had driving licences, fully registered cars and proper insurance. Now they are still driving, in greater numbers thanks to the booming economy, but without proper papers. That means they are vulnerable to constant harassment from the police, including hefty fines, towing or seizure of their vehicle. It also means that other drivers involved in accidents have to pay for their own damage since there is no other insurance company to press claims against.

The policy has done the Department of Motor Vehicles little good, since several employees have been caught taking bribes in exchange for black- market licences. Indeed, California may repeal the legal residency requirement - as much on grounds of road safety and clean government as civil rights for foreigners.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my full licence suddenly popped through the mailbox at the beginning of the week. The package wasn't exactly a singing telegram - aside from the card, there was a lot of grim bureaucratese about blood-alcohol levels - but it might as well have been. I was so thrilled I instantly pledged all my bodily organs to medicine in the event of a fatal accident. After 12 months and 14 days in California, I have finally arrived.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + ?110 - 130: Randstad Education Reading: English Teacher ...

KS2 Teacher with SEN responsibilities

£115 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: KS2 teacher with SEN responsibi...

Administrative Assistant

£60 - £75 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Administrative Assitant Hertford...

Web Application Support Manager

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments