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Driver's License Bill Gains

Senate panel OKs bid to grant illegal immigrants the permits. Others fear terrorists would benefit.

June 16, 2004|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The renewed legislative push to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants has prompted disagreement among law enforcement officials about whether the permits would make it easier or harder for would-be terrorists to infiltrate California.

The license fight, which helped Arnold Schwarzenegger unseat Gov. Gray Davis in last year's recall, has been resurrected in the Legislature, where a Democratic-controlled Senate panel Tuesday voted 7 to 4 to approve a bill that would grant licenses to immigrants who passed a criminal background check.

So far, the Schwarzenegger administration has balked at the proposal, saying it would make it too easy for terrorists to use the documents to create new identities.

Regarding immigrants from Mexico, aides said, a particular concern is that in many cases the state would rely on the matricula consular, an identification card issued by that country. The FBI has declared that document unreliable because of the lack "of any means of verifying the true identity of the cardholder."

Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona also opposes granting licenses to undocumented immigrants.

"There's no way to check out those people, to look into their background, to determine who they are," a sheriff's spokesman said Tuesday.

But other law enforcement officials -- most prominently Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton -- have dissented from the administration's views. They believe that obtaining the fingerprints and photographs of California license applicants would help them get a handle on people already in the country illegally.

That, they say, would help them track immigrants who were later sought for law enforcement reasons and would make it less likely that immigrants driving without a license or insurance would flee the scenes of accidents.

"We do not have significant concerns about the issue of terrorism as it relates to this issue. I'm sorry, but we just don't," Bratton told reporters earlier this month. "And it's a red herring in many respects, quite frankly."

John Miller, Bratton's senior antiterrorism advisor, told the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday "that most of the major terrorists in California have not been 'illegal aliens.' "

He noted that Ali Mohamed, an Al Qaeda operations planner who pleaded guilty to the 1998 terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, was an American citizen and Santa Clara resident who held a legitimate California driver's license.

Sacramento Police Chief Albert Najera said he supported the general idea of licenses for illegal immigrants.

"We have these folks here, and we have no information on who they are or what they're doing or not even a particular name, because they can use a different name every time they get stopped," he said. "With our fingerprint technology, soon we'll be able to push a finger into a pad in the control car and it will come back with any criminal record information we have. That's not Buck Rogers stuff."

But Najera said he favored the concept only if the licenses noted the driver's country of origin -- something that Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), the bill's author, finds "repugnant" for its potential to foster discrimination.

The security provisions of the measure are the most substantial differences from the law repealed last year, making the views of law enforcement officials particularly important.

SB 1160 would charge immigrants up to $146 for a license to pay for fingerprinting and a background check. Cedillo said he designed those provisions to address the concerns Schwarzenegger had during the recall campaign.

Cedillo dismissed any worries about the matricula, saying that the Transportation Security Administration recognized it as a valid form of identification for airline passengers and that banks relied on it to open accounts.

But on-and-off negotiations with the governor's office over six months led to no compromise.

Schwarzenegger insisted Tuesday that he was still interested in finding middle ground, telling reporters, "We are working very hard to make this happen."

No administration officials testified about Cedillo's bill Tuesday, when the Senate committee approved it along party lines.

The measure still needs approval from the full Senate and Assembly -- both controlled by Democrats -- before it can be sent to Schwarzenegger.

Tuesday's debate harked back to last year's fight, quickly devolving into an argument about whether licenses would reward immigrants for illegal behavior.

Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, a conservative club based in Monrovia, told Cedillo that if the bill was signed into law, the group would prepare another referendum like the one that drew 600,000 signatures last year, before the Legislature repealed the bill on its own.

"This bill is really worse than the last bill," testified former state Sen. Dick Mountjoy.

Cedillo's effort at compromise also drew objections from Francisco Estrada, director of public policy for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

He told lawmakers that "without appropriate confidentiality provisions" to assure immigrants that the information would not lead to their deportation, the bill "threatens or potentially dissuades individuals from applying for the licenses."

But Cedillo was undeterred. "If we're getting criticism from the left and the right, we've probably got a pretty good bill in the middle," he said. "At the end of the day, I don't know if there's some perfect system."

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