A little more than a week after angry Californians tossed out their sitting governor, a grass-roots campaign is gaining ground in a push to reverse a new law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.
A group of Republicans who were active in the recall effort said they had collected nearly 40,000 signatures in the two weeks since they began circulating petitions for the proposed ballot initiative. If volunteers can gather 375,000 signatures of registered voters by Dec. 7, the law will be suspended and voters will decide its fate in the March election.
The battle over driver's licenses began with the Proposition 187 movement of 1993. That year, amid a number of bills to combat illegal immigration, the Legislature for the first time required proof of legal status before an applicant could obtain a California driver's license. Gov. Gray Davis' signature on Senate Bill 60 reversed that law in September.
The initiative drive started as a backlash against Davis' signing of the license bill. But since the recall, the rhetoric has shifted toward a referendum on competing views of California: one that tolerates illegal immigrants and one that rejects them.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 96 words Type of Material: Correction
Licenses -- In a Section A story on Saturday about a drive to reverse a law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, Tyler Moran was quoted as saying that nine of the 14 states that do not bar illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses still require forms of identification available only to legal immigrants. According to Moran, fewer than nine of those states have such requirements. The story also suggested that driver's license applicants must have insurance. In fact, only licensed drivers who seek to register vehicles in California must show proof of insurance.
More than 30,000 people have registered on the "Save Our License" Web site and requested petitions, according to Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, the conservative Republican group that launched the initiative drive.
The same AM radio talk show hosts who pushed the recall have taken up the cause, hoping to tap some of the same voter anger that drove Davis from office, They have cast the new law as a peril to national security, pointing out that the terrorists who hijacked jetliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, used driver's licenses as identification to board the aircraft.
The petition drive has a potentially large audience. A Times poll taken two weeks before the Oct. 7 recall election found that 63% of likely voters in California disapproved of the new law.
Supporters of the law, which could apply to as many as 2 million people, argue that it will increase highway safety by requiring illegal immigrants -- who, they argue, are driving anyway -- to pass driving tests and buy insurance.
Data to support either the petitioners' national security argument or the highway safety rationale are elusive, according to interviews, records from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, the California Highway Patrol and independent studies.
State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who wrote SB 60, believes he can persuade Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger to reverse his opposition to the law and denounce the initiative.
During the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger accused Davis of signing the bill to curry favor with voters and said he would work to overturn the measure.
Cedillo plans to go the Legislature in January, when the law is to take effect, to add additional security amendments.
But petitioners are not willing to wait that long.
On Thursday, at a golf course restaurant in Costa Mesa, 30 Republican activists who helped get the governor's recall on the ballot readied themselves for the driver's license battle. Urging them on were Ron Prince and Barbara Coe, coauthors of Proposition 187, the successful ballot initiative that would have barred illegal immigrants from public schools, clinics and other services. It was never enforced and eventually was overturned in the courts.
The driver's license and the matricula consular (an ID card issued by the Mexican Consulate) "are nothing but free passes for terrorists, folks," Coe said. "They're chuckling. Thirty bucks and they're home free."
That argument has gained traction nationwide. Federal officials have raised concerns about the security of the driver's license as identification, and state motor vehicle departments have wrestled with their licensing requirements since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, three bills have been introduced in Congress to discourage states from issuing government identification to illegal immigrants. One bill would cut federal highway funds to states that issue driver's licenses to the undocumented.
"One of the best ways to blend in is to get a driver's license -- you're rarely questioned after that," said Linda Lewis, president of the American Assn. of Motor Vehicle Administrators.
But relying on the DMV to protect against terrorism is a dubious prospect at best, Cedillo argued. Terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber were U.S. citizens, he pointed out. Although the Sept. 11 hijackers had valid driver's licenses, he added, they also were known to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which did not act on the information. None had entered the country illegally.