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Illegal Immigrants Face New License Test

A seminar on how to apply turns into a rally opposing the petition drive to repeal the new law before it can take effect.

October 19, 2003|Stephanie Chavez | Times Staff Writer

A convention originally planned as a nuts-and-bolts session to teach illegal immigrants how to apply for a California driver's license under a new state law turned into more of an emotional political rally Saturday aimed at opposing a petition drive by those who want to overturn the measure.

"We don't come here to take part in terrorism, we come here to work," Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa told a cheering crowd of Latino immigrants gathered at East Los Angeles College. "There are people out there who are trying to divide us. But we are not going to be deterred. We are here. We work hard. And are not going anywhere."

A group of Republicans supporting the petition drive said that the new law, which allows illegal immigrants to obtain a California driver's license, threatens national security. They point out that the terrorists behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon used driver's licenses as identification when they boarded the airplanes.

Villaraigosa's comments, which were reinforced by state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), the author of the bill, come as the petitioners said they had collected nearly 40,000 signatures for a proposed ballot initiative to rescind the law. If they collect 375,000 signatures of registered voters by Dec. 7, the law will be suspended until voters make a decision on it in the March election.

"We are ready to march, to organize to fight this," Cedillo said, describing the need to uphold the law as a matter of protecting the rights of immigrant workers. "This is about our people living and working in dignity."

Undeterred by the prospect that the law could be overturned, dozens in attendance lined up at a Department of Motor Vehicles booth to snatch up armfuls of drivers' education manuals and instructions to take home to unlicensed family and friends.

DMV Director Steven Gourley delivered a speech in Spanish warning immigrants to be prepared for long lines if the law does takes effect Jan. 1.

"The main point for you today is that when you go to a DMV office on Jan. 2, be prepared," he said. "Bring all the documents you need.... We expect there to be very long lines. And make sure to study for the exam."

One woman asked Gourley if a license issued to an illegal immigrant would look different from those given to legal residents.

"They will all be equal," he responded.

Only about 250 of the more than 700 people who registered showed up. Organizers blamed the strike against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

"These are people without driver's licenses," said Edward Headington, spokesman for Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, an immigrant advocacy group sponsoring the convention. "They take the bus."

Most of those in attendance had come in groups that organized chartered bus service from areas including Santa Ana, Anaheim and Ontario.

Yet the lack of a large crowd did not deflate the enthusiasm of those who did attend. Speakers roused them into chants of "Si, se puede!" (Yes, we can!)

In an appeal to Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said during the campaign that he would work to overturn the driver's license law, several attendees carried signs that paraphrased a popular Schwarzenegger slogan:

"Let's bring California driver's licenses back for all Californians," the sign read.

Nativo Lopez, national director of Hermandad Mexicana, had originally billed the day as a "Driver's Fair," a kind of celebration along the theme of "Securing a Better Living With a Driver's License."

Instead, the group voted on a resolution vowing to protect the new law.

"Our next step is to set up a broad coalition of unions, churches and civil rights organizations," Lopez said.

Jessica Ramirez, 16, of Santa Ana had hoped attending the conference would give her a one-stop opportunity to gather the information she needs to prepare for her driver's test. But now she is worried that she will still be prohibited from obtaining a license because she is an illegal immigrant.

Since 1993, applicants for a license have been required to show proof of legal status. Under the new law, acceptable forms of identification would include an original or certified copy of a birth certificate, a passport or an identification card issued by the Mexican Consulate.

"You know, I think of myself as American. I came here when I was 5 years old from Guadalajara," said the high school junior, who aspires to be a physician's assistant. "I have never even been to Mexico. I speak English. My family has worked here for years. But we can't get a license."

Eloina Dominguez, 35, of Pacoima said she had promised her friends who didn't have licenses that she would take home instructions for them.

Against the backdrop of the transit strike, the issue of obtaining a license has taken on greater urgency, she said. Now, she must break the news to them that the law may be overturned.

"You know, in Los Angeles driving is not a luxury, it is a necessity," she said. "How do you take your children to the doctor? How do you take them to school? How do you get to work?"

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