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Assembly OKs Driver's License Bill

The 44-30 vote is the last major hurdle before 2 million illegal immigrants could become legal motorists.

September 03, 2003|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A bill that would allow an estimated 2 million illegal immigrants to obtain a California driver's license passed the Assembly on Tuesday, clearing the last major hurdle before becoming law.

The Senate is expected to quickly adopt amendments made during the Assembly debate and present the bill for Gov. Gray Davis' promised signature.

Approval followed an almost four-hour floor fight -- featuring a rare bilingual debate in English and Spanish -- in which backers of the bill, SB 60, agreed to remove a system that would record the fingerprints of every new and renewed licensee, a security measure inserted only 10 days ago.

On a nearly party-line 44-30 vote, three more than it needed, the bill by Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) was returned to the Senate for expected adoption of amendments. It then would go to Davis, who reversed his long-standing opposition to such legislation and promised at various recall election rallies to immediately sign the bill.

Since 1994, applicants for California driver's licenses have been required to prove they were legal residents of the United States. They also must provide their Social Security numbers.

The bill, however, would repeal the residency requirement and allow illegal immigrants to provide a federal taxpayer number and a second form of identity chosen by the Department of Motor Vehicles to qualify for a license.

The governor had vetoed similar proposals twice, at the urging of top law enforcement officials. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, police chiefs and sheriffs had warned against loosening requirements that establish a driver's identity and recommended enactment of more stringent safeguards that would ensure that license applicants were the people they claimed to be.

During an emotional debate in which Davis was accused of pandering to the Latino community in order to gain their anti-recall votes and opponents were accused of voicing anti-immigrant biases, three Latino lawmakers addressed the chamber in Spanish: two Democrats in favor of the bill and one Republican who opposed it.

Assemblyman Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who managed the bill on the Assembly floor, urged the members to "leave our anti-immigrant biases outside" and debate the bill on its merits. He said it would make California highways safer by requiring everyone to be tested by the Department of Motor Vehicles before they got behind the wheel and also be required to purchase automobile insurance.

"This bill does one thing and one thing only: It protects public safety," Nunez said, noting that an estimated 2 million illegal immigrants currently drive without California licenses.

But opponents insisted the bill -- because it requires no criminal history or other background checks -- would weaken protections against issuing driver's licenses to criminals and terrorists. Davis, they charged, cared less about public safety and more about recruiting Latino voters to help defeat the recall against him.

"We have a governor right now who is champing at the bit to sign this into law. Why? To save his job," charged Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy (R-Monrovia). He also said Democrats wanted the bill enacted because newly licensed illegal immigrant drivers also could register to vote on DMV "motor voter" applications, a felony.

Several Assembly members, including former police officers, charged that without the ability to accurately establish a motorist's identity, California would become a magnet for undocumented workers, criminals and terrorists hoping to get a highly respected state document that could be used to establish someone's identity.

By voting for the bill, Assemblyman Jay La Suer (R-La Mesa) told proponents of the bill, "You're aiding and abetting a criminal." But Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) angrily accused opponents of hiding behind "homeland security." She said, "There are certain people on the road you just don't want to have any rights. It's all right to exploit them for work, but you don't want them to have any rights. That's wrong."

For Cedillo, the victory in the Assembly was hard-won and came at a high cost. Last week, in a last-ditch attempt to round up support, he inserted into the bill a high-tech fingerprinting system that would instantly detect whether a driver already held a license and thus expose a fraudulent applicant.

To finance the new system, estimated to cost at least $50 million, he envisioned using an increase in fees on all driver's licenses.

However, the move caught fellow Democrats in the Senate by surprise. Some feared the fingerprints might be sent to federal immigration authorities while others voiced concern about its "Big Brother" potential. Some wanted no part of hiking other license fees to pay for a project of uncertain effectiveness.

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