Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill into law Friday that grants illegal immigrants the right to obtain California driver's licenses -- a long-debated measure similar to one he vetoed less than a year ago.
Davis, who has courted Latino votes in his campaign to fight a recall, signed the measure at a festive outdoor gathering in Lincoln Heights, drawing cheers and chants from a crowd of several hundred, including immigrants for whom the bill represented an important validation.
"No recall!" the crowd chanted as white balloons rose into the early evening sky.
The measure had been strongly supported by Latino legislators and advocates of immigrant rights, who say it will make the state's roads safer and acknowledge the presence of an estimated 2 million illegal immigrants of driving age.
Opponents, among them leading Republican candidates to replace Davis, say it makes a mockery of immigration laws and poses a national security threat.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 17, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 85 words Type of Material: Correction
Driver's licenses -- An article in the Sept. 6 California section about a law allowing illegal immigrants to apply for driver's licenses contained a potentially misleading phrase. The story said that many illegal immigrants drive without licenses, "but many more follow the law and use public transportation." The writers did not intend to say that more illegal immigrants take public transportation than drive; only that many take public transportation. The Times is unaware of data indicating the percentage of illegal immigrants who use public transit.
In remarks delivered in Spanish and English before the signing, Davis said the new law would help immigrants who pay taxes and contribute to the economy.
"Every day, hard-working immigrants work in our fields, put food on our table, clean our hotels and care for our seniors," he said. "These hard-working immigrants work, pay taxes and they deserve the right to drive to work.... The law that I will sign will ensure that drivers already on the road will know the rules of the road and so are better drivers."
Davis had vetoed a similar bill last October during his reelection campaign against Republican Bill Simon Jr.
At the time, Davis said that, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, it had become "abundantly clear that the driver's license is more than just a license to drive; it is one of the primary documents we use to identify ourselves."
He said then that he would support a driver's license bill if it contained "certain common-sense protections," such as requiring applicants to have jobs, and allowing the Department of Motor Vehicles to perform background checks.
Neither of those provisions was in the bill that he signed Friday.
Among those vying to replace Davis in the Oct. 7 recall election, Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) opposed the measure. Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Republican Peter V. Ueberroth, Green Party candidate Peter Camejo and independent candidate Arianna Huffington had all expressed support.
The signing was an especially sweet moment for state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who had been trying to get the measure approved since he first won election to the Assembly in 1998. Cedillo appeared with Davis at the ceremony, thanking him in the course of a speech he delivered in Spanish.
Others on the rostrum at a DMV parking lot included Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa and City Council President Alex Padilla.
After the ceremony, Cedillo told reporters: "This will ensure [that] everyone on the highway has the responsibility to be tested, licensed and insured." He denied that Davis signed the measure to beef up support from Latino voters in the recall election.
"The governor and I have been working on this for five years," he said. "He did not do this because of the recall. He did this because it was time."
Cedillo has argued the law will enhance, not threaten, national security by giving law enforcement officials access to DMV records, including home addresses and fingerprints of newly licensed illegal immigrants.
Opponents strongly disagreed with the assertion that the law would improve security. "If you come to the United States illegally, the state of California has no business giving you official documentation to drive," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "If Osama bin Laden can get a California driver's license, how secure does that make you feel?"
There was some jostling at the signing ceremony between supporters and a small knot of opponents protesting the new law. Police separated them.
Many illegal immigrants drive without licenses, but many more follow the law and use public transportation -- not always an easy option in parts of California that are ill-served by trains and buses.
Jose Antonio Talavera, a Mexican immigrant living in Santa Ana, said the law will "change my life and the lives of so many people like me." In anticipation of Davis' signature, Talavera had rushed to the Mexican consulate to get a Mexican consular identification card. The card can be used to prove his identity when he applies for a license after the law takes effect on Jan. 1.
Talavera said that the last time his wife was about to give birth the couple barely made it to the hospital. Without a car, he relied on a bus to get home from work and then risked deportation to drive her in a neighbor's car to the hospital.
If he had a car, he added, he would insure it. The annual price would be less than the $600 or more he now spends on bus fare for his family to visit his parents twice a year in Bakersfield.
Under the new law, driver's licenses can be awarded to California residents who pass a driver's test, regardless of their citizenship. The measure would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses with a federal taxpayer information number or other state-approved identification, including the consular card known as the matricula consular, issued by Mexican consulates and recognized as identification by some U.S. businesses and government agencies.
With Davis' signature, California returns to its practice of allowing licenses for all drivers. In 1994, the Legislature began requiring motorists to provide a Social Security number.