By Jennifer Chaussee
SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - California may have to delay its plan to start issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants next year if a conflict between state and federal authorities over the design of the permits is not resolved soon.
The most populous U.S. state has been negotiating for two months with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which said the permits look too much like licenses issued to legal residents.
“We’re asking DHS to reconsider their decision," said Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo. "From what I understand, they are not budging.”
California was one of 10 states that enacted laws last year allowing unauthorized immigrants to receive driver's licenses or permits. Others have begun issuing permits to young people who have temporary permission to remain in the United States.
The state is home to about 2.6 million undocumented immigrants, according to a study last year by the University of Southern California. There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
But the design of the California licenses has drawn controversy, pitting advocates for immigrants, who do not want the bearers to be subject to discrimination, against federal officials who fear security will be compromised if it is not clear the licenses do not provide legal proof of identity.
Additional controversy dogs the question over what documents the state should demand of people who are in the country illegally as proof of identity, as immigrant rights advocates want the state to loosen its proposed requirements.
In May, Homeland Security officials ordered California to include more obvious features on the front of the cards to distinguish them from regular licenses.
Amid complaints from lawmakers and immigrant rights groups, the administration of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown promised to work with the federal government to resolve the issue.
DEADLINE IN QUESTION
Six months before the state is scheduled to take its first applications, talks are ongoing, both sides said.
Armando Botello, a spokesman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, said that if the issues were not resolved soon, the state could miss the Jan. 1, 2015, start date mandated by the Legislature.
Marsha Catron, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the agency was working closely with the state to resolve the issue.
The DMV is also under pressure from advocacy groups to loosen its proposed requirements for establishing the identity of an undocumented immigrant applying for a driver's license.
The state proposes requiring an approved voter card such as a Mexican electorate card, or a combination of two other documents, such as a birth certificate and a consular ID. Applicants may also request an interview-based process to establish identity.
Immigration advocates say the state should also accept employee IDs, or allow a child’s birth certificate to establish a parent’s identity.
But those requests open up the possibility that information might be inaccurate, said Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, who represents suburban San Diego.
(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Peter Cooney)