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Gov. Vetoes Immigrant License Bill

The legislation would have allowed people in the state illegally to seek driver's permits. Democrats vow to try again next year.

September 23, 2004|Jordan Rau and Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday vetoed legislation that would have made California's 2 million illegal immigrants eligible for driver's permits. But the veto did little to put to rest one of the state's most emotional and enduring issues.

Democrats vowed to try again next year, while Republicans pushed for more restrictions on illegal immigrants.

The California Republican Assembly, the state's oldest Republican volunteer group, announced that it had won approval to begin collecting signatures for an initiative that would prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving not only driver's licenses but other state benefits such as in-state college tuition.

"Not a bad day if you want to stop giving benefits to people here illegally," said Republican Assembly President Mike Spence.

Latinos and Democratic lawmakers accused the governor of breaking his promise last year to negotiate a "sensible solution" after the Legislature repealed the driver's license law at his urging.

Schwarzenegger said he feared terrorists would use the documents to infiltrate the country and had repeatedly threatened a veto. But Democrats insisted that changes they made from last year's measure should have satisfied him.

"I am disappointed that the governor vetoed this measure, despite the fact that this right currently exists in 10 other states," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). "Considering that he gave his word that he would work with the Legislature on an acceptable bill, we are now back to square one."

Nativo V. Lopez, national president of both the Mexican American Political Assn. and Hermandad Mexicana, said his groups are prepared to call for national boycotts of convention centers in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. That, he said, would "share the pain with all of California."

"There's no reason in the world that Schwarzenegger should accept us to work in his kitchens, to landscape his yard and wash his Hummer and not allow us to have a driver's license," Lopez said.

Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), the author of the measure, "went to the nth degree to strike a compromise based on the governor's word, and we were all duped," Lopez said. The governor, he said, "demonstrated that he's not a person of his word."

Schwarzenegger further angered Democrats on Wednesday by vetoing several of their most aggressive efforts to give patients more leverage in dealing with hospitals and insurers. One measure would have prevented hospitals from charging uninsured patients more than they bill medical plans.

Another would have required, with some exceptions, health insurers and healthcare plans to include coverage for maternity services in health insurance they sell in California.

"The governor's veto gives a thumbs-up to discrimination against women and allows insurers to drop maternity care from basic coverage, in order to sell lucrative low-cost policies to target populations," said Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), the bill's author.

In one of his longest veto messages, Schwarzenegger said that the maternity measure presented a "difficult choice," but he concluded that the bill would increase the costs of health insurance and force people to pay for maternity services they might not need.

By contrast, Schwarzenegger's driver's license veto was notable for its brevity, as he provided little explanation for how the bill fell short.

He did not cite the reason his aides had given throughout the legislative session: that it failed to include a special identifying mark to distinguish holders as illegal immigrants. He also offered no suggestions for how a better deal could be arranged, as he has in other veto messages.

"One of the most important duties of the governor of a state is to protect its citizens," he wrote. "Determining the true identity and history of an individual is a key component of that protection. This bill does not adequately address the security concerns that my Department of Homeland Security and I have, and I cannot support it."

That contention had been debated throughout the year, with some law enforcement officials, including Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, arguing that it would help anti-terrorism efforts to have some records of illegal immigrants. They also noted that other governors, including Republican Jeb Bush of Florida, have allowed driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.

Cedillo had modified last year's bill to include fingerprint background checks on all applicants, but some law enforcement officials said those were unlikely to include criminal records in other countries.

Cedillo said he would try again next year to forge a compromise.

"I'm disappointed but not discouraged and we'll be back," he said.

In order to place a stricter prohibition on illegal immigrants on the ballot in 2006, advocates must gather 600,000 signatures by the end of February, Spence said.

He said the GOP group, which last year had been prepared to hold a referendum on the old driver's license law before lawmakers rescinded it, plans to mail 100,000 petitions Monday.

Elizabeth Garrett, a law professor at USC, said she doubted the issue would be resolved or go away anytime soon.

She said that no matter what "niceties" were included in the measure, Schwarzenegger was unlikely to give in on an issue that aroused passionate opposition during the recall campaign and helped win him election.

"This license bill is going to be part of our politics and part of out discourse," Garrett said, "but I don't see any chance that in the near future it's going to be enacted."

Times staff writer Joe Mathews contributed to this report.

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