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California immigrant drivers' permits to be on time, despite tiff

By Jennifer Chaussee

(Reuters) - California still expects to issue drivers' licenses by 2015 to immigrants living in the state illegally, despite a disagreement with federal officials over the design of the permits, a motor vehicle official said on Friday.

"We are continuing with getting this law implemented," said Armando Botello, a spokesman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. "Everything should be ready by January 1, 2015."

This week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security rejected California's proposed design because it looked too much like a regular license, sparking a strong reaction from the state's Latino Caucus and other lawmakers.

The top Democrat in the state senate, Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to ask the agency to reconsider.

Ten U.S. states enacted laws allowing unauthorized immigrants to receive drivers' licenses or permits last year, including California and Illinois. Others have begun issuing the permits to young people who have temporary permission to remain in the United States.

In North Carolina, the license design calls for a dark pink stripe across the front and the words "No Lawful Status" in red. In Alabama, officials said the licenses will be marked "FN" for Foreign National.

Immigrant rights groups have complained loudly about the distinctions, calling them unfair and saying they could invite discrimination.

"Any prominent fixtures on licenses that indicate undocumented status would lead to increased incidents of racial profiling," said U.S. Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat. "DHS requiring such fixtures would place the state's immigrant community at risk and do more harm than good."

Seeking to avoid such accusations, officials in California decided to indicate that the state's licenses were not the same as federal identity papers on the back of the documents.

But the federal Department of Homeland Security said the plan did not go far enough. In a letter to California Department of Motor Vehicles Director Jean Shiomoto, two homeland security officials wrote that the state needed to put the indication on the front, and use "a unique design or color" to distinguish them from regular licenses.

The proposed regulations would require immigrant driver's license applicants to provide proof of residency, such as a rental agreement or utility bills, and a form of foreign-government-issued identification in order to receive a license.

(Reporting by Jennifer Chaussee in Berkeley; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Andre Grenon)

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