FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — 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.
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