Jorge was driving his Ford F-150 truck through the Westside one day in 2009 when he says he was pulled over by a Santa Barbara police officer for something hanging from the rearview mirror. An undocumented immigrant and city resident for nine years, he received a warning for the deodorizer — a view obstruction — but his car was towed because he didn’t have a license.
Eight days later, he was driving again, not far away from where he was pulled over the first time, on Dutton Avenue. He was in a different car, and the officer, Carl Kamin again, said his brake lights weren’t working. Jorge disputes this, but his car was towed once more, and he received another citation under Vehicle Code 12500 — driving without a license.
In a one-year span, from June 1, 2011 through June 1, 2012, Santa Barbara police issued 1,100 unlicensed driver citations. Many who received them, like Jorge, face a dilemma: Jorge works in construction and needs the truck to haul his tools; he can’t take the bus. In fact, a workforce of undocumented immigrants labor in landscaping and housekeeping in Montecito, where the bus doesn’t run.
But there might be some measure of relief on the way for migrants in Jorge’s situation, a number of whom were interviewed by The Santa Barbara Independent over the last few months. On Sunday, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that would allow many undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. Statewide estimates suggest 350,000 people who live across California would be eligible to receive them.
Introduced by Assemblymember Gil Cedillo, AB 2189 allows those immigrants who meet the requirements of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to apply for licenses. Under Deferred Action, certain undocumented immigrants are able to live and work in the U.S. for two years without having to worry about deportation. The program is for those between the ages of 15 and 31 who came to the U.S prior to the age of 16, have been going to school here, and have graduated from high school or been honorably discharged from the U.S. military. They also must not have committed a serious crime.
Assemblymember Das Williams voted in support of Cedillo’s bill. “I believe in treating human beings with dignity and respect, regardless of their immigration status,” Williams said. “If the federal government has allowed some immigrants to remain in the country while they pursue employment opportunities and a path to citizenship, I believe that extending them the privilege of holding a driver’s license is the right thing to do.”
Police Chief Cam Sanchez said he, like many police chiefs around the state, is in support of the law, explaining that it will make the streets safer. Not just anyone is eligible for the licenses, he explained; it must be people who have gone to school, have insurance, and are fingerprinted. “It’s not easy to just show up and get a driver’s license,” Sanchez said.
In recent months, there have been murmurs in the Santa Barbara Latino community that its members are being unfairly targeted by officers, specifically Kamin. Data from the Police Department indicates he has issued three times as many unlicensed-driver citations as the next officer. And a majority of the citations Kamin hands out are for unlicensed driving on the Westside.
But Police Department officials say the high number is a result of Kamin’s work as a motorcycle cop who is exclusively on traffic patrol. “His sole job is traffic safety,” Sanchez explained. Officials said that motorcycle cops issue the majority of the department’s citations, so it’s reasonable that Kamin’s citation count would be higher than others. Sergeant Mike McGrew, in charge of the department’s traffic enforcement, told The Independent a couple of months ago that Kamin works a lot of overtime, specifically on grants that have to do with traffic enforcement, and his citation number is generally higher than other officers across the board.
The next highest number of citations after Kamin’s 158 is 58 issued by Officer Jon Palka, followed by Officer Aaron Tudor with 50. There are four other officers who have given out 40 or more citations in the one-year span. The top eight officers account for 43 percent of the 1,100 total unlicensed-driver citations the department issued in that time.
And while the fact of the matter is that the people ticketed are driving without a license, many of those interviewed by The Independent aren’t upset because they are being ticketed — they realize they are breaking the law — but they feel like they are being unfairly targeted because of their race.
“People are tired of being targeted because of the color of their skin.” But Police Chief Sanchez said that is not the case. “We do not target any communities,” he said.
Laura Ronchietto, an advocate who is a boardmember and part of the legal committee of the Santa Barbara chapter of the ACLU, has been keeping tabs on the situation for a while. “These findings demonstrate what Latinos have experienced for years in Santa Barbara,” she said. “People are tired of being targeted because of the color of their skin.” But Police Chief Sanchez said that is not the case. “We do not target any communities,” he said. Sergeant McGrew said he received no complaints of racial profiling by his officers.
Probable cause is needed to pull someone over in the first place, and if it is discovered someone doesn’t have a license, they’ll get a ticket. “If you don’t have a license, you shouldn’t be driving,” Sanchez said, which is why he is in support of the newly signed law. “Let’s move forward,” he said of the new law.
While they don’t have licenses, taking the bus or walking to work isn’t an option for many people. Some are housecleaners, who need to transport vacuums and cleaning equipment from site to site. Others are construction workers or landscapers with large amounts of tools and wheelbarrows and ladders, forcing them to drive. If they have a need, they’re going to drive anyway, Sanchez said, as many are doing what must be done to provide for their families; they might as well be licensed. “I see it as a benefit here,” he said.
Also Sunday, Governor Brown vetoed the Trust Act, which would have forbidden local officials from cooperating with the feds in detaining undocumented immigrants, except when they are suspected of a serious crime. In addition to his vote for the driver’s license bill, Williams also voted for the Trust Act. “I share many of the Governor’s concerns regarding unintended consequences of the bill,” he said in a statement. “But I supported the bill because of its focus on anti-profiling, protection for witnesses and victims of crimes and protection of mothers and their children who face the potential of being split apart for minor offenses.”