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Driver's License Plan for Illegal Workers Criticized

Politics: Minority-rights activists say identifying mark on special licenses would be a 'scarlet letter.'


SACRAMENTO — As Gov. Gray Davis works to keep Latino voters and law enforcement officers as core constituents in his reelection campaign, minority-rights activists are attacking a suggestion that if undocumented immigrants are allowed to drive in California, they should be identified on their driver's licenses as illegal workers.

The idea, supported by Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and other top-level peace officers, would imprint a letter such as "I" for immigrant or a coded number on a license so police could determine immediately if they were dealing with someone in the country illegally.

"I think that is a very helpful tool," said Baca, one of the governor's most influential advisors.

Baca is head of a task force helping Davis craft a compromise bill that would allow certain unlawful immigrants to drive in the state but at the same time protect the safety of citizens against terrorists and other criminals.

But the notion of a special identifier on the license, which Davis aides said could be printed in an inoffensive way, is drawing strong criticism from civil libertarians and immigrant-rights advocates.

"It's essentially giving these folks a scarlet letter," said Rini Chakraborty, a negotiator for the California Immigrant Welfare Collaborative. "It's an open invitation to all sorts of discrimination."

Baca and other participants in a series of behind-the-scenes meetings said last week that it was still unresolved whether the proposed license would include a special color, letter or number. Davis hopes to find a solution to this and other immigrant driver's license issues this summer so the Legislature can act on it.

But Baca rejected the assertion that a license identifying the driver as an illegal immigrant would violate the person's rights, especially because he or she was illegally in the country.

"Having a driver's license that has a letter identifier on it [be] somehow a denial of legal rights is incomprehensible to me," the sheriff said in an interview.

"If I don't understand it, I doubt the average Californian will understand it."

Baca said that, especially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "California has to be very cautious before it goes leaping into this area."

In the Latino community, the most contentious issue by far is enactment of a law that would enable unlawful immigrants to drive in California. Last year, Mexican President Vicente Fox called on Davis to support such legislation.

Davis, who counts the Latino population as a political cornerstone of his bid for a second term, favors providing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants with certain conditions.

Among other things, they must have a clean criminal record, be applying for citizenship, provide a federal taxpayer identification number (in lieu of a Social Security number), and have resided in California for several years.

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), author of the legislation creating the special license program, said about 2 million illegal immigrants would be eligible for such permits.

His bill is supported by various police chiefs and automobile insurance companies that believe trained and licensed drivers would make the highways safer.

Davis two years ago vetoed a similar proposal. The Legislature sent another bill to Davis last year, but the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon destroyed any chance that the governor would sign it. He and others noted that some of the foreign-born terrorists had phony U.S. driver's licenses.

In the aftermath, Davis appointed Baca and several other sheriffs and police chiefs to advise him on safety issues, including licensing undocumented workers to drive in California.

"This is the key issue in the Latino community at this time. It is so important," said Sarah Mercer of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.


'Potentially Dangerous' Discrimination Feared

She said that immigrant-rights advocates understand the fears of law enforcement officials, but that a special license for illegal workers would be "potentially dangerous" because it might encourage discrimination against them.

"We understand their concerns, but at the same time we have to [create a license program] that is nondiscriminatory," she said.

Mercer and Chakraborty noted that minority Californians vividly recall discrimination following the 1994 passage of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-immigrant initiative championed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson.

An identifier on the driver's license would be an "open invitation for employers, cops and vigilantes to discriminate," Chakraborty said. She said no immigrant-rights organizations would support "such an extreme measure."

But Russ Lopez, a spokesman for Davis, denied that a special identifier would act as a "scarlet letter" and invite discrimination.

"It would be very subtle and very inoffensive. We're not talking about a big green stripe on the license or a huge stamp that says, 'Immigrant,'" he said. "We're talking about one number or letter."

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