SACRAMENTO — After a late-night debate on the politically sensitive issue of immigration, the California Assembly on Wednesday passed a bill to extend driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
The measure would clear the way for California to create a distinct driver's license, with a unique design and color, for people who cannot prove legal citizenship in the United States. The license could be used only for driving and would not be valid identification for other purposes such as opening a bank account or boarding an airplane.
The bill, SB 60 by Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), would also allow roughly 800,000 people in California who have applied to federal immigration officials for legal residency to get a California driver's license starting as soon as March 2006.
The bill passed 42 to 34.
Cedillo's bill passed the Senate in June on a 22-16 partisan split. Now the Senate is expected to approve recent amendments and send it to the governor, who is under pressure from Republicans to veto the measure.
Cedillo said he included several elements in the bill aimed at overcoming objections from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who last year vetoed a Cedillo driver's license bill. But before the state Assembly took up the new bill Wednesday, there were no indications that the changes would satisfy the governor.
The governor's office has consistently said Schwarzenegger does not want to take any action until the federal government finishes deciding its requirements for state licenses -- changes spawned by concern that terrorists or other criminals could get such documents. Congress gave states the option to create distinct driver's licenses for illegal immigrants under the Real ID Act passed in May. That sweeping law will require most states to change the information they include on driver's licenses, the documents they require to issue a license and how they store driver's license data.
Before adopting their own new laws, most states are waiting to see what regulations the federal Department of Homeland Security issues to implement the Real ID Act. Those regulations are expected next year.
On the Assembly floor, Democrats argued that the bill would improve highway safety in California by ensuring that most drivers are licensed, trained and insured.
"This is a good bill because I believe it's the right thing to do because individuals are here and they're driving and that's the reality," said Assemblyman Jerome Horton (D-Inglewood).
Republicans argued that the bill would reward people for breaking the law.
Assemblyman Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale) asked how he could teach his children to follow rules "when the California state Legislature is making rules that cause people to not have to obey the law."
But the 90-minute debate focused less on the details of the bill than on the politically sensitive issue of immigration.
"Illegal immigration is an enormous cost to this state," said Assemblyman Mark Wyland (R-Escondido). "And what this does is propose to legitimize that."
Assemblyman Alberto Torrico (D-Newark) argued that undocumented workers, through taxes taken from their wages, "put in more than they're taking out."
"The reward is not the driver's license," he said. "People come to this country because of the jobs and the economic opportunity and to get what every one of us wants for our children ... a better life."
In an attempt to head off Schwarzenegger's concern that California should wait until the federal government details the requirements of the Real ID Act, Cedillo amended his bill last week to incorporate such a delay.
Cedillo argues that his bill will help all 22 million Californians with driver's licenses by giving the Department of Motor Vehicles the authority to begin changing its procedures, computers and staffing to meet all the requirements of the federal Real ID Act by the May 2008 deadline. If California misses that deadline, its residents cannot use their driver's licenses for official federal purposes.
With his popularity eroded and polls showing voters displeased with the initiatives he has embraced on the November ballot, Schwarzenegger risks alienating loyal voters if he signs Cedillo's bill."It would be horribly disappointing" if the governor did not veto the bill, said Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly.