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U.S. rejects California driver licenses for undocumented immigrants

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California lawmakers are clashing with federal officials over the design of drivers' licenses for immigrants living in the country illegally, highlighting concerns about how to grant such permits while also making clear they do not confer legal status.

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

This week, the Department of Homeland Security rejected California's proposed design for the permits, sparking a strong reaction from the state's Latino Caucus and other lawmakers who worked for years to pass the law to allow the permits.

"Our commitment is that this will not set us back," Assembly member Luis Alejo, a Democrat from the agricultural community of Watsonville, said on Wednesday.

Alejo, who authored the law last year, said the state had already been in contact with Homeland Security officials about the rejection, working through the Department of Motor Vehicles in the administration of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.

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

The licenses have become a focal point for controversy, as states seek to distinguish them from documents that are considered instruments for official identification as required by federal law.

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 that they could invite discrimination.

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, not the front.

But this week, the federal Department of Homeland Security advised the state that its 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 needs to put the indication on the front of the license, and also use "a unique design or color" to distinguish the permits from regular licenses.

On Wednesday, immigrant rights activists scrambled to oppose the ruling, gathering online petitions and lobbying the state's Congressional delegation to ask Homeland Security to back down.

"We are strongly rejecting the attempts by the Department of Homeland Security to strongarm the state of California into accepting what we see as unnecessary requirements," said Arturo Carmona, a spokesman for immigrant advocacy group Presente.org.

Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman Armando Botello said the state still plans to begin issuing the permits next year and was preparing for an anticipated crush of applicants.

"We're still working on hiring an additional 1,000 people and opening four temporary offices," Botello said. "We're still hopeful that we can meet that deadline."

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)

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