Are you in favor or not?
Driver's license bill close to a final OK
By Jim Sanders -- Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Wednesday, September 3, 2003
Amid angry accusations of racism and recall-election politics, legislation granting illegal immigrants the right to obtain California driver's licenses cleared the Assembly on Tuesday and appears certain to become state law.
The 44-30 party-line vote sparked more than two hours of heated debate, with Assembly Democrats claiming SB 60 will make the state's roads safer and Republicans blasting the bill as a crass attempt to court the Latino vote in the upcoming gubernatorial recall election.
The measure, one of California's most significant immigrant-related bills in years, needs only Senate concurrence in amendments and Gov. Gray Davis' signature. Senate officials said Tuesday they expect passage, and Russell Lopez, Davis' spokesman, said the governor will sign SB 60.
"I have a sense that we're at a point where we're no longer waiting for the perfect time -- the perfect time is now," said Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, who introduced SB 60 this year after his similar bill last year was vetoed by Davis because of security and other concerns.
The measure would affect an estimated 2 million undocumented immigrants who currently cannot obtain California driver's licenses or insurance because they don't have a Social Security number and can't prove they are legal residents.
SB 60 passed the Assembly only after Cedillo dropped a controversial plan to implement a high-tech fingerprint scanning system designed to heighten security by ensuring that nobody obtains more than one license by using false identities.
Though Davis supported the high-tech, biometric system, critics noted it could cost more than $50 million and create a database containing millions of digitized fingerprints that, if privacy laws ever changed, could be used in ways that would intrude on motorists' civil rights.
Lopez said the governor supports SB 60 even without the biometric system.
"The bill as written is better than nothing at all," Lopez said.
"We're looking at it from a public safety perspective," Lopez added. "We need to get these (immigrants) -- who are already out on the street driving and endangering other people's lives -- we need to get them trained and get them insured."
Under SB 60, instead of a Social Security number, illegal immigrants could qualify for a driver's license by providing a federal taxpayer identification number and a combination of other documents -- such as a birth certificate, foreign driver's license, foreign passport or a matricula consular card issued by the government of Mexico.
Applicants also would have to provide a thumbprint or fingerprint, as California drivers do now, but such prints could not be used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to determine an applicant's residency status.
SB 60 also would require undocumented immigrants to provide proof that they reside in California, such as a water bill or rental receipt. But it does not require them to have lived in the state for a specific period of time.
SB 60 supporters said the bill is long overdue and would allow undocumented immigrants, many of them longtime residents, to drive to work or take their children to school without fear of having their vehicles confiscated if they are stopped by police.
Cedillo and other supporters say undocumented immigrants had similar rights in California before the law was changed in 1993. But critics said SB 60 does not contain adequate security measures and could open the door to increased terrorism, identity theft and voter fraud.
"The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11th demand that California bolster -- not weaken -- the security features of the driver's license application process," said Assembly Minority leader Dave Cox.
Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy, R-Monrovia, said the state owes undocumented immigrants nothing.
"Because they're illegal, they ought to be sent home -- we ought not give them benefits," Mountjoy said.
But Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, said opponents of SB 60 are being hypocritical because they don't complain when undocumented workers clean houses, wash cars or do other unpopular but necessary jobs.
"It's all right to exploit them for work, but they don't want them to have rights," she said.
Unlike last year, Davis no longer is demanding that undocumented immigrants be in the process of obtaining citizenship, undergo criminal background checks or provide proof that they have lived and worked in California for a specified period.
Mountjoy and others accused the governor of pandering to political interests as the Oct. 7 recall election nears.
"It's his last grasp at keeping the governorship," Mountjoy said.
Lopez denied that gubernatorial politics had anything to do with Davis' stand.