By Jeremy B. White

In a setback for a new law offering driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants in California, the federal government has rejected the state's proposed license design for falling short of security safeguards.

The law launching the new licenses requires the state Department of Motor Vehicles to offer the cards by the start of 2015, and a spokesman for the agency expressed optimism that the reconfigured licenses will be ready by then, noting that it is pressing ahead with opening processing centers and hiring staff to handle an expected influx of new work.

"At this time we're not anticipating that it will set us back," said Jessica Gonzalez, a DMV spokeswoman. "We're going to continue working with legislators, community groups and (the Department of Homeland Security)."

Still unresolved is the basic dispute: Federal officials want a license that is clearly distinguishable from other licenses, and advocates for the new law want subtle changes that do not expose immigrants carrying the cards to discrimination.

"Each state has the right to implement its own licenses and make sure they do it in the best interest of their residents," said Joseph Villela, policy director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. It is important for California, he added, "in a state that is minority-majority, that we deter any type of racial profiling by any state agency or private entity."

The Homeland Security Department sent California a letter saying the design submitted by California does not meet federal guidelines intended to guard against counterfeit or fraudulent documents.

In Illinois, immigrant driver's licenses carry a purple band. In Utah, a stripe on the card's front states, "Driving Privilege Only, Not For Official Identification" in large block letters.

California's solution was to have the licenses include the marking "DP" for "driver's privilege," rather than the standard "DL" signifying "driver's license," and a disclaimer on the back saying the card is ineligible for federal purposes. That did not pass muster.

Instead, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security suggested more obvious markings, such as a distinct color scheme or prominent language on the card's front stating "in machine-readable code that it is not acceptable for official Federal purposes," such as boarding airplanes.

"The REAL ID Act and regulations include specific marking requirements for noncompliant licenses and identification cards to allow Federal officials to quickly determine whether a license or identification card may be accepted for official purposes," the letter states.

Immigrant advocates have been the strongest voices promoting the new licenses, saying they will ensure that immigrants can drive safely and without fear of reprisal. But some of those same advocates have warned about unintended consequences, worrying the new licenses could function as scarlet letters loudly declaring a driver's immigration status.

To alleviate those worries, Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, included language in the bill prohibiting authorities from using the licenses to discriminate against people. He has follow-up legislation this year guaranteeing that information immigrants use to apply for the new licenses remains confidential.

"I think what we passed legislatively is the best bill out of all of those that have been enacted across the country," Alejo told The Bee in September of last year, saying his bill would make the licenses "the most discreet out of any state that has enacted a driver's law" since the REAL ID Act passed.

Getting the licenses to immigrant communities remains a priority for some lawmakers. The California Latino Legislative Caucus earlier this year sent a letter to the California DMV urging the agency to expedite the process, and on Tuesday the 24-member Latino caucus called the federal repudiation "disappointing and troubling."

"We strongly believe that the design submitted by California satisfies the intent of the law, by including a distinctive mark on the front, and the required statement on the surface of the license," the caucus statement said.

In a separate letter, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, urged the Department of Homeland Security to reconsider. The Senate leader wrote that the fledgling law "will improve public safety in our populous state by ensuring that all Californians understand the rules of the road, and be trained, tested, licensed and insured." Steinberg also underscored concerns that the new licenses could spur more deportations.

"I also urge you to provide assurance that DHS will not seek or use information provided by driver's license applicants for civil immigration enforcement purposes," Steinberg wrote.

(c)2014 The Sacramento Bee