SACRAMENTO — The state Senate on Wednesday approved and sent to Gov. Gray Davis a measure that would grant 2 million illegal immigrants the right to obtain California driver's licenses, a move that recognizes the immigrants' huge presence in the state.
Advocates say the bill, which the governor said he would sign, will make the roads safer and end an era of anti-immigration sentiment. Opponents counter that the state will be setting out a welcome mat for terrorists as well as undocumented workers.
But both sides agree that changing attitudes toward immigrants and the upcoming recall election became a driving force behind the measure.
"Nobody is naive -- if a governor is in the middle of a recall, he's going to do good things for California," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "Certainly, it will boost his standing among immigrants."
David Ray, spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said, "It's only when the governor needed a lifeline that the bill had a fighting chance."
The Senate adopted the bill on a 23-15 vote after an impassioned 80-minute debate, sending it to the beleaguered Davis.
The bill, SB 60, by Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), would award driver's licenses to California residents who pass a driver's test, regardless of their citizenship.
It would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses with a federal taxpayer information number or other state-approved identification.
With this measure, California returns to its practice of allowing licenses for all drivers. This changed in 1994 when the Legislature began requiring motorists to provide a Social Security number.
The requirement was intended to slow illegal immigration and reduce government services provided to undocumented individuals with licenses. The requirement was imposed the same year that voters approved Proposition 187, which would have cut off public services to illegal immigrants in California. The proposition was later overturned by the courts.
"This really puts an end to a whole period of anti-immigration fervor in California history," said Maria Blanco, a national senior counsel with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "There's a widespread recognition that undocumented immigrants are here. And for the first time, there's a positive movement to incorporate them into society."
Indeed, to some Latinos, society has become accepting. A Times Poll from March 2001 found that 43% of Latinos said the quality of life in their communities had improved in the past five years -- a brighter outlook than that of whites (21%) or blacks (34%).
That poll, and interviews, also suggested more optimism among Latinos than in the 1990s, when many felt that native-born and immigrant Latinos were scapegoats for a bad economy and social ills. Conversely, when the Times Poll recently asked Californians to list the most important issues facing the state, immigration ranked very low.
Salas put it this way: "If we can trust undocumented immigrants to take care of our homes, our elderly, our children, and put food on our tables, they, too, can be trusted to take on the responsibilities of a good driver."
Ray, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, countered: "It's faulty logic to assume that people who openly flout immigration laws are going to respect driving laws. This just enables them to gain a more secure foothold in the U.S."
On Wednesday, Cedillo's opponents charged that the bill failed to include a requirement that would accurately verify an applicant's identity. This omission, they said, would invite acts of terrorism, such as the attacks of Sept. 11; some of those terrorists were licensed to drive in the U.S.
"You're increasing the risk for all Americans of another terrorist attack," Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) told Cedillo. He charged that Davis agreed to sign this bill "for a crass political purpose -- to save a failed governor."
Other critics charged that the bill would subvert immigration restrictions.
"This bill has one purpose, and one purpose only, and that is to undermine the enforcement of our immigration laws," said Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), who is a candidate for governor in the recall election. Republican gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday that the bill would invite fraud and undermine law enforcement. "If Gray Davis signs this bill, I will lead the fight to repeal it as governor," he said in a prepared statement.
Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, another candidate and a Democrat, has supported it.
Wednesday's proceedings marked the fifth time that Cedillo had introduced such legislation, one version of which Davis vetoed because, the governor said, it lacked adequate safeguards to protect public safety from terrorists or criminals who, in effect, could change their identities by acquiring a California driver's license.