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Immigrants Decry Multiple Probes for License

Legislation: Sheriff Baca wants third background check of undocumented workers who seek driving privileges.

April 14, 2002|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Negotiators of a bill to allow unlawful immigrants to drive legally in California disclosed Friday that Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is pressing for a state background investigation of potential applicants to identify criminals and terrorists.

Immigrants seeking to become citizens and permanent residents already undergo two background checks by the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice. The proposed third investigation would be conducted by state agents.

"It fits in line with making sure they do not have any criminal history in California, in particular, and in the United States, in general," Baca said of his idea. "California cannot afford to be careless."

Baca's proposal comes as negotiators convened by Gov. Gray Davis are trying to work out details of a bill to allow immigrants who entered the country illegally to apply for a California driver's license. Proponents say it would be safer to license illegal immigrants than to have them driving without licenses.

Under the bill being discussed, to qualify for a license the immigrant motorists would have to be seeking citizenship or permanent residency, have a taxpayer identification number in lieu of a Social Security number, have a clean criminal history and provide a thumbprint.

On Friday, immigrant-rights advocates were quick to criticize Baca's proposal. They said Baca and law enforcement executives are attempting to take advantage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to acquire unrelated new powers.

"Law enforcement is actually trying to obtain things through this bill that really are not related to post-Sept. 11 concerns," said Maria Blanco of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "They are a law enforcement wish list."

Rini Chakraborty of the California Immigrant Welfare Collaborative said a third background check of prospective drivers based on immigration status was unnecessary. "Terrorists are no more representative of immigrants than Timothy McVeigh was of citizens," she said. "They're seeking the American dream, not trying to destroy it."

A spokesman for Davis noted that no recommendations have yet been made to him by the negotiators of the bill. He said the governor had no position on ordering additional background checks.

The immigrant-rights activists charged that the latest suggestion by Baca mirrors an earlier "repugnant" proposal that also was advanced by Baca and defended by Davis' aides. That idea would stamp a letter or number on an immigrant's license that would identify the motorist as undocumented.

Baca said this would alert police officers that they were dealing with someone who had entered the country illegally.

But such a "scarlet letter," the immigrant-rights advocates said, offered an open invitation to discrimination and harassment by police and others.

Meantime, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), author of the bill (AB 60) to give illegal immigrants driving privileges, said he was aware of the negotiators' conflict over a state background check. Even so, Cedillo said, he and Davis were "very close" to reaching an agreement that would enable the immigrants to drive legally while still protecting Californians from terrorists.

Cedillo stressed that reaching a settlement will require law enforcement negotiators and immigrant advocates to demonstrate "flexibility" in resolving remaining issues, including the proposed criminal background check.

Cedillo said the negotiators, recruited last fall by Davis in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon, were committed to devising the "safest and most secure driving document" for immigrants who had entered the country illegally but have lived in California for years.

Cedillo, the car insurance industry and an array of peace officer executives support the plan, contending that everyone would be safer if these immigrants were tested and licensed by the Department of Motor Vehicles and purchased required insurance policies.

A similar bill by Cedillo was vetoed two years ago by Davis. Cedillo pushed it through the Legislature again last year, but it was cast into legal limbo in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks because Davis neither signed nor vetoed it.

At the time, it was considered politically impossible for Davis to sign the bill because of public outrage when it was learned that some of the hijackers had fake American driver's licenses. However, he appointed a special task force of law enforcement and administration officials to try to work out a compromise bill this session.

Baca acknowledged Friday that background investigations by state agents would be costly, but said he had not suggested how they would be financed. One possibility, he said, would be for immigrant drivers to pay an additional fee.

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