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LEGISLATIVE SESSION ENDS

Lawmakers Defend License Bill

They say the measure allowing illegal residents a driver's ID contains tough safeguards.

August 29, 2004|Monte Morin | Times Staff Writer

Illegal immigrants seeking a California driver's license under new legislation would face tougher background checks than most U.S. citizens, including screening by federal anti-terrorism authorities and the required submission of fingerprints, bill sponsors said Saturday.

The Immigrant Responsibility and Security Act, which lawmakers approved in the final hours of the legislative session Friday, would require background checks by the state Department of Justice, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Doctors, lawyers and teachers undergo similar scrutiny during licensing, said the bill's author, Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles). Criminal records would disqualify applicants for a license.

"This would be the safest and strictest license issued in America," Cedillo said Saturday.

However, the likelihood that the legislation will become law Jan. 1 appears slim. A day after the Senate approved the measure, a spokeswoman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would scuttle the bill because it did not require a notation on the license identifying the holder as an illegal immigrant. "This legislation does not address his security concerns," said spokeswoman Margita Thompson.

Supporters of the bill opposed inclusion of the notation signifying illegal status, saying it would serve no security function and would lead to discrimination.

Despite the governor's vow to veto the measure, the Senate approved it 21 to 14, and the Assembly voted 42 to 35 in favor. Nine months ago, both houses voted to repeal a similar law signed by Gov. Gray Davis weeks before he was recalled from office.

Sponsors of the new bill said they altered the legislation to address the concerns of law enforcement.

Under the measure, drivers who could not prove legal residency in California would have to provide prints of all fingers, undergo background checks and get adult sponsors. In addition to conducting criminal background checks, screeners would also look to see whether applicants were on the Department of Homeland Security's terrorism watch list, Cedillo said.

The proposal is supported by many in law enforcement, including Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton and the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

Applicants would be required to provide a federal taxpayer identification card from their consulates.

On Saturday, opponents of the licensing bill said its 11th-hour approval would hurt legislators who voted for it.

"There'll be more than one person who loses their office over this," said Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly. "We'll be making sure that people know in November how legislators voted."

Spence said his group was pressing on with an initiative prohibiting the Legislature from granting driver's licenses, welfare or other government benefits to people residing in the United States illegally.

At the same time that the governor's aides were reasserting his intent to veto the bill, opponents of the measure said they feared that Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a supporter of the legislation, would sign it into law while the governor was out of state.

Schwarzenegger was scheduled to leave for the Republican National Convention in New York on Saturday and not return until Wednesday. That would make Bustamante the acting governor and allow him to approve legislation.

If he signed the bill and Schwarzenegger wanted to repeal the law, the governor could issue an executive order telling the Department of Motor Vehicles not to implement it, call a legislative special session to reconsider or, more likely, order a special election next spring, asking voters to overturn the measure.

On Saturday, Cedillo and members of the governor's staff acknowledged that approval of the bill by Bustamante was a possibility, however remote.

Asked about such a move, the lieutenant governor declined to state any intention.

"I'm very supportive of the bill," Bustamante said through a spokesman. "As to whether I would sign it or not -- that calls for an extreme amount of speculation."

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