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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.