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Senate OKs Easing of Residency Proof for Foreign Drivers

May 21, 1999|CARL INGRAM | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The Senate rejected warnings of potential fraud by illegal immigrants and voted Thursday to relax a portion of the law that requires California driver's license applicants to prove they are in the United States legally.

In a debate that at times turned personal, Democrats said the proposed changed was designed to make California a friendlier place for foreign corporate executives on temporary assignments to drive and conduct business.

But Republicans accused Democrats of using the foreign corporate executives as a smoke screen to mask an easing of safeguards aimed at prohibiting illegal immigrants from being licensed to drive in California.

"The bottom line is this is a bill that will increase fraud and increase illegal activities in this state," said Sen. Raymond Haynes (R-Riverside).

Democrats dismissed the GOP criticism. They insisted that plenty of safeguards will remain in place, but failure to assist foreign corporate representatives would cost California business, an argument usually made by Republicans.

"This is not a bill to open up the floodgates for people to come into this country and drive here illegally or somehow abuse our system," said Sen. Hilda Solis (D-La Puente), the measure's author.

She said the failure of business executives, particularly the Japanese, to quickly and easily obtain a permanent license "disrupts their ability to conduct business here, meaning we lose out on millions and millions of dollars."

Twenty-one Democrats and two Republicans teamed up to send the bill, SB 371, to the Assembly, where its prospects for approval are considered good. Eleven Republicans voted against it.

Under a law enacted amid a backlash against illegal immigration in 1993, every first-time applicant for a driver's license must submit proof of citizenship --such as a birth certificate -- or legal residency.

The applicant's identity is then run through a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service database to double check its validity, a costly and time-consuming process involving about 180,000 California verification checks a year.

Solis' bill would leave unchanged the requirement that applicants must show proof that they are in the country legally. But it would repeal the secondary check

through INS records, unless the state Department of Motor Vehicles suspected the documentation submitted for a license was fraudulent.

For foreign executives who are in California legally, the double-check process results in long bureaucratic delays because of backlogs at the DMV and the INS, Solis said. But critics said that wasn't enough of a reason to change the law.

"If there are problems in the DMV ... let's deal with those problems. Let's not make it easier for someone who is in the United States illegally to get a driver's license," said Sen. Ross Johnson of Irvine, the GOP floor leader.

The bill was endorsed by several influential business organizations such as the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers Assn. Scores of big-name Japanese companies also support it, including Sony Electronics, Mitsubishi International, Sumitomo Corp. and Toshiba America.

But Republican Sen. John Lewis of Orange questioned whether the bill would be limited to foreign executives, suggesting that it would apply to every first-time applicant."

Solis said it was her intent that the bill apply only to business executives, even if it contained no such distinction.

The bill drew support from Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach), who praised it as a helping hand to foreign businesses whose representatives "come to this country. They have to wait a long time. They can't get their licenses."

But in a rare personal attack, Johnson questioned Karnette's "surprising" support for a pro-business bill.

Karnette told him that she reached her opinion after listening "to the arguments very carefully." But Johnson shot back, "Did you understand them?"

"I resent that. I really do," said Karnette, who was taken aback for a moment. Later, the two huddled at her desk and hugged.

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