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Stop the Impound Madness


Friday, June 21, 2013

On any given day, Carmen drives her ‘80s Honda Civic to work in the city of Santa Barbara, leaving her 2002 white Expedition to rest at home. Many can’t understand why she would leave her nice vehicle behind – some suggest it is the increasing gas prices – but in reality, she is an undocumented worker in the United States.

In 1992, along with her sister Marilu, Carmen crossed the border and now resides in Santa Barbara. Ever since, Carmen has been unable to drive with ease of mind because of the fear that her car will be towed and she will have to pay a hefty fine of $2,300 for driving without a license. Ironically, the same state that prohibits her from owning a license and driving, taxes her regardless of legal status: insurance, vehicle smog checks, annual registration fees, etc. This is the reality not for Carmen but for the undocumented immigrant community as a whole in California.

Historical Perspective: During the 1994 California governor elections, Pete Wilson ran one of the most xenophobic campaigns ever witnessed. At the time, California was going through an economic recession, and he ran on a bill once considered the solution to California’s economic problems: Proposition 187. Its provisions limited and, in some cases, banned social services to undocumented immigrants in the state, including health and school for children. Fortunately, the proposition was struck down by California Supreme Court. Wilson was able to push one of the Prop. 187 platforms, though: Ban the ability of undocumented immigrants to apply for a California Driver License. Ever since, undocumented immigrants have driven without licenses – fearing that any given day their vehicle will be taken.

City of Santa Barbara: The City of Santa Barbara imposes some of the harshest fines for those driving without a license. Those who are caught without a license have to pay $30 per day for 30 days plus additional administrative fees imposed by the city police department, for a total of about $2,300. This is a great hardship for anyone living on minimum wage – or even on a “living wage.”

The Santa Barbara Police Department (SBPD) goes to an unnecessary extreme with their policy – stating that unlicensed drivers will have their cars impounded, whether they are pulled over as individuals (even for the smallest of things) or at DUI checkpoints. Their policy sounds simple: “No license, no car, no exception,” yet fails to acknowledge that immigrant communities are unfairly affected. The Chief of Police, Cameron Sanchez, has not made efforts to improve the current conditions, but has expanded DUI searches around the city of Santa Barbara. Noozhawk.com stated that the purpose of DUI checkpoints “was not only to detect and arrest drivers under the influence of alcohol and or drugs, but also to locate drivers who are unlicensed or suspended.”

A UC Berkeley Study cited by the Santa Barbara nonprofit Pueblo found that most of the administrative fees incurred through the impounding process were actually allocated to pay for police overtime. You might think most of these checkpoints are set up randomly across the city. However, Pueblo’s extensive research has shown that most of these checkpoints happen within striking distance of high hospitality-service areas and or immigrant communities in the city.

Russell, writer of the Pueblo report, writes that these checkpoints are meant to prevent drunk driving, but most of the tickets given out are for unlicensed undocumented drivers. These actions lead the undocumented immigrant community to believe that SBDP does not support the immigrant community and that it indeed targets immigrant communities.

For Carmen and many others, going to work, family gatherings, or even grocery shopping are risks that may end with a $2,300 fine for driving without a license. A fine that exceeds a monthly income doesn’t just hurt but injures a family financially. SBDP should not be punishing undocumented immigrant families. The police should be working together with immigrant communities to tackle problems within their jurisdiction.

LAPD Solution: The Los Angeles Police Department recently changed its policy toward car impoundments of undocumented immigrants: If a person is caught without a license, the person has the opportunity to call a relative or friend with a license, without having the car impounded and incurring the fees. Further, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and L.A. County’s Sheriff Lee Baca have both come out in support of drivers’ licenses for undocumented students.

The SBPD should make a case for easing the fines and impoundments on undocumented immigrants’ cars.

Jagwar Ma

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