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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own