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A Road to Greater Safety

June 25, 2004

Farmworkers heading for the fields before dawn have little choice. Neither do the nannies and housekeepers dispersing to Malibu, Riverside and beyond each morning. Cooks, waiters, busboys, construction workers, gardeners and janitors are in the same fix once they get outside the urban core. Given California's sprawl and inadequate public transportation, they drive. Often illegally. And often unlicensed, uninsured and in unregistered cars. It was not always that way.

Before 1994, the policy of the California Department of Motor Vehicles was "don't ask." Applicants had to prove they were insured but not that they were legal residents. Later, the Legislature, riding the wave that produced the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, voted to require such proof.

Then-Gov. Gray Davis, grasping for Latino votes during last year's recall campaign, reversed his own previous vetoes of similar measures and signed a driver's license bill that was short on security measures. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger swept it away in his first weeks in office but invited lawmakers to return a bill with tougher requirements for background checks and proof of identity.

The Legislature is trying again. Earlier this month, SB 1160, the proposed Immigrant Driver Safety and Responsibility Act, began crawling through the process and is likely to be sent to the governor. It marks the fifth attempt by state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) to fulfill a campaign promise.

Opponents of the bill are vehement that the driver's license has become a de facto national identity card. Why, they ask, should California make it easier to live as an illegal immigrant, encouraging even more such immigration? An argument closer to the fringe is that terrorists could more easily board airplanes. The truth is that, at least for Mexicans, an identity card from their consulate is already enough for most domestic flights.

The latest version of the measure does have teeth. Immigrants without legal documents must submit a birth certificate, an official ID from the country of origin and proof of California residency. Residents of nations suspected of harboring terrorists are not eligible. Aspirants must submit a photo and fingerprints for a criminal background check by the FBI. They must also have a U.S. citizen with a driver's license vouch for them. (Granted, citizenship hardly guarantees probity.) A hefty $146 fee covers the extra costs of the background checks.

Some people oppose licensing illegal residents purely on the grounds that they broke the law by crossing the border. But Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, for one, sees a public safety advantage in having a higher percentage of licensed drivers on the road, carrying proof of identity and address. So do insurers, envisioning fewer hit-and-runs if drivers are licensed and insured.

Schwarzenegger should bring his usual pragmatism to bear in pushing for the bill's passage. California carries the burdens of illegal immigration in its schools, hospitals and jails even as employers from homeowners to farmers to factories revel in cheap labor. No one has ever argued that the situation makes sense, but states still have to grapple with the consequences.

Eight other states do not require proof of legal residence for driver's licenses. California would be safer and more secure if it joined their ranks.

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