Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 | 3:59 p.m.
FRESNO, Calif. — When 17-year-old Alondra Esquivel needs to get from her rural central California home to classes at Fresno State University 20 miles away, she must rely on rides from her relatives or her boyfriend.
Most Californians her age can drive. But Esquivel, a college freshman, was brought illegally to the United States from Mexico when she was 7. And California has denied driving privileges to immigrants lacking legal status since 1993.
"Without a license ... I have to depend on others to do the basic things," said Esquivel, who lives in rural Parlier, Calif., has classes at the college four times a week in Fresno. "It's a big inconvenience."
But Esquivel soon could get driving privileges: She is one of an estimated million eligible 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.
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.
For young people like Esquivel, foreign-born but steeped in America's language and lifestyles, the single administrative policy at the federal level, coupled with a state decision, could spell a life-changing moment — transforming school and work opportunities, daily nuisances and even social lives.
In California, where the automobile is king and car-culture dominates, the change could be most profound. Nearly inaccessible without a car, the state is famous for its freeways, streets lacking sidewalks and spotty or nonexistent public transportation. Driving is more than a practical necessity for Californians: it's a birthright.
Illegal immigrants in California who can't drive face a long series of daily inconveniences and calculated risks. Some drive without a license, unable to find another way to get to work or school. Others depend on family, friends and co-workers for rides.
It's especially hard on young people like Esquivel, who was raised in the U.S., but has had to miss out on the quintessential American rite of passage. She got top grades at Parlier High School, earning a merit scholarship to attend college, and plans to become an elementary school teacher. But at an age when getting behind the wheel seems pivotal, Esquivel can't drive to the mall or to see her friends, not to mention to school or work.
"Sometimes I feel like going out, but I can't really do that," she said.
Esquivel was smuggled by relatives through a border checkpoint in a car with her younger sister — an experience she barely remembers.
In high school, she watched classmates get driver's licenses and cars as soon as they turned 16. Esquivel and a few others could not apply because of their legal status.
"It was hard," she said. "I felt left out. They were able to do things, go places, and I couldn't."
Parlier, population 14,500, has little in the way of public transportation, stores or services. Residents drive virtually everywhere — to get to work, grocery shopping, to the doctor and to church.
Esquivel's parents, who pick grapes, olives and other crops in nearby fields, don't have time to drive her places and have not allowed Esquivel to drive without a license, because it's too dangerous, she said.
"If I get stopped, I could get deported," she said. "Things like that worry them."
Numerous bills to grant licenses to those without legal status in California have failed or been vetoed by several governors over the past decade.
Still, the commute to college has proved a challenge. Family members have to wait for hours while Esquivel is in class. And while the young woman's boyfriend, a U.S. citizen, also studies at Fresno State, their schedules don't coincide.
Her parents told her she might soon have to drive on her own, which fills Esquivel with dread. For the past month, she has occasionally sat behind the wheel with a relative in the passenger seat, in lieu of driving lessons.
Esquivel, who is in the process of applying for the new immigration program, hopes a license will come with it. To benefit, immigrants must prove they arrived in the United States before they turned 16, were younger than 31 as of June 15, have been living in the country at least five years, are in school or graduated, and have not been convicted of certain crimes.
Young immigrants who qualify won't get permanent legal residency or a path to citizenship, but will receive a work authorization card and a Social Security number.
"I'm really hoping the law that allows us to drive will pass," Esquivel said. "It would be a great relief for me."
Critics of the new immigration program say granting licenses to young immigrants like Esquivel would reward and accommodate illegal immigrants.
"We're already paying for the costs of illegal immigration. Why should we pay for additional benefits?" said Bob Dane, spokesman with the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington D.C. "The driver's license is a breeder document which opens up a full spectrum of rights and privileges" such as access to banking accounts, credit cards and mortgages.
But immigrant advocates say denying licenses to people approved under the new immigration program is illogical.
"This is a common sense issue," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the Los Angeles based National Immigration Law Center. "These are young people who will have valid work authorization and Social Security numbers. They will need to drive to school, to work, to medical appointments. From a policy perspective, granting them licenses makes sense."
For Esquivel, a license would also mean fulfilling another wish: driving 200 miles north to Sacramento to visit grandparents she has not seen for years.