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Bill Allowing Driver's Licenses for Illegal Immigrants Hits Roadblock

Senate Democrats knock legislation off Assembly fast track after complaining about a lack of time to study its major amendments.

August 22, 2003|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Senate Democrats on Thursday jammed the brakes on Assembly approval of a fast-track bill that would allow illegal immigrants to become licensed drivers and trigger a $330-million fee increase for all motorists to finance a high-tech fingerprinting system aimed at detecting fraud.

The bill was derailed, at least temporarily, by upper-chamber Democrats who complained in private that the suddenly fast-moving proposal, which was endorsed by Gov. Gray Davis, was being thrust on them before they had had time to examine its heavily amended contents, especially the new fingerprinting system that some worried could be used to identify illegal residents to immigration officials.

So, minutes after the Democrat-controlled Assembly started an impassioned debate on the bill, Senate Democrats took the unorthodox step of asking that it be withdrawn before a vote.

Assemblyman Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), Assembly manager of the bill, SB 60 by Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), stopped the debate, explaining only that unspecified "technical issues" had raised concerns in the Senate.

Moments later, Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco) showed up to patrol the Assembly aisles, pausing occasionally for brief, whispered conversations with some members. To reporters, he dismissed the bill's unexpected derailment as "no big deal."

Cedillo termed the development a temporary setback and predicted that the measure would be approved by the Assembly next week. From there it would return to the Senate, which passed it earlier, and then go to Davis.

But sources who spoke on the condition that they not be identified said Senate Democrats had been caught by surprise Wednesday when the Assembly Appropriations Committee swiftly and quietly cleared the bill for a floor vote on Thursday without a public hearing, discussion or testimony.

Cedillo received a second setback Thursday when the California State Sheriffs' Assn. declared its opposition to the bill, branding as too weak a requirement that would allow undocumented immigrants to use their individual federal tax numbers to verify their identities. Such numbers are "easily obtained" and not secure against abuse, the organization said.

And the Internal Revenue Service warned Department of Motor Vehicles Director Steve Gurley that such tax numbers, which license applicants would substitute for Social Security numbers, are "not valid for identification outside the tax system."

"We do not subject [tax number] applicants to the same rigorous document verification standards as Social Security number or visa/passport applicants," the IRS wrote in a letter.

When the Cedillo bill arrived in the Assembly from the Senate in June, the bill proposed that the driving privilege of legal residents be extended to undocumented immigrants, about 2 million of whom may be driving illegally.

Cedillo and his supporters assert that the bill would enhance public safety, especially on the highways, because illegal immigrants who are driving unlawfully would apply for licenses, be tested by the Department of Motor Vehicles and be required to buy automobile insurance.

In the Assembly, Cedillo agreed to include the proposed fingerprinting system in the bill. To finance it was an array of license fee increases that Davis had proposed in January to shore up shortages in the state motor vehicle account.

The latest plan would instead divert the increases to pay for the fingerprinting systems, which would instantly detect whether an application was fraudulent. Now, only a thumbprint is required.

Some Democrats, including Burton, a source said, voiced concern that every applicant for a first-time or renewed driver license would be required to provide their fingerprints for storage in a vast state databank that some feared might give police a crime-fighting tool that could infringe on people's civil liberties.

According to the source, other Democrats voiced worries that the information collected on illegal immigrant drivers could go to federal databases and be used to track down or target illegal immigrants. Last year, Latino Democrats succeeded in beating back a similar plan.

"There's a fear of this Big Brother database," the source said, "not only for undocumented folks but everybody else."

Cedillo said he was happy to delay the bill so colleagues could study it, develop a "comfort" level and vote for it.

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