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Time to hit the road

Schwarzenegger should stop stonewalling efforts to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

February 23, 2007

BY NOW, THE contredanse has become a ritualized set piece: The state senator offers a bill to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, and the governor finds a way to oppose it. For the last several years, state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have engaged in this political game, but this year Schwarzenegger has given it an unfair new twist.

In the past, the governor has said that he would support giving illegal immigrants licenses only if such licenses had distinguishing marks identifying their holders as illegal, as well as other security requirements. Under Cedillo's latest bill, licenses for illegals would be distinct in appearance, clearly denoting that they are not a form of national identification.

The bill also includes mandatory minimum security measures that mirror those in the federal Real ID Act, which takes effect in May 2008. It would require immigrants without legal documents to submit a birth certificate, an official ID from their country of origin and proof of California residency. They also would have to undergo background checks and have their fingerprints taken.

Hearings on the bill are scheduled to begin next month in Sacramento. But even though Cedillo's bill addresses Schwarzenegger's concerns, the governor's aides say he opposes the bill. What's different this year is his reason. No longer is Schwarzenegger voicing concerns only about security. Now he says it would be premature for California to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants until Congress enacts comprehensive immigration reform.

That's a doozy of a change. Yes, comprehensive immigration reform is necessary, and the governor rightly supports it. But not every issue has to wait for Washington. There are an estimated 2 million illegal immigrants in California, hundreds of thousands of whom drive to work in the state's fields, schools, factories, hotels, construction sites and restaurants. It is in California's interest to see that they are properly licensed and therefore more likely to have insurance.

Those who oppose issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants say the state shouldn't be in the business of making life easier for people who aren't supposed to be here anyway. Having broken the law by crossing the border illegally or overstaying their visas, they say, such immigrants should receive no state benefits.

It's undeniable that illegal immigrants place a real burden on schools, hospitals and other institutions. But driver's licenses must be earned and paid for, and they benefit not just those who carry them but anyone who uses the state's roads. And having changed his rationale for opposing the Cedillo bill, Schwarzenegger can easily change his mind again -- and agree to sign this bill if it comes across his desk.

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