California advocates believe this is the year for immigrant driver's licenses
By Jim Sanders
Two months after President Bill Clinton was acquitted of impeachment charges in the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, a fight began in California to grant driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Fourteen years later, proponents have pushed bills unsuccessfully year after year – at least seven different times. But a changing political climate gives this year's measure a fighting chance to become state law, supporters say.
"I think the dynamics have changed, given the growing importance of the Latino electorate in California," said Sen. Ricardo Lara, the Bell Gardens Democrat who chairs the Latino Legislative Caucus.
Licking their wounds from election losses last November, some Republicans hope to court future support from Latinos, who are expected to constitute a majority of California's population by 2025.
"We hope to have bipartisan support on this bill, which has never happened," said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, a Watsonville Democrat who is carrying this year's proposal, Assembly Bill 60.
Alejo's bill would allow driver's licenses to be issued to anyone, regardless of immigration status, who has a federal taxpayer identification number or "any other document" that the Department of Motor Vehicles concludes "clearly establishes the identity of the applicant."
Supporters of AB 60 are buoyed by the Illinois Legislature's passage of immigrant driver's license legislation weeks ago, and by a new California Department of Motor Vehicles report that finds unlicensed drivers are three times more likely to cause a fatal crash.
Opponents contend that AB 60 would provide "gateway identification" for use in boarding planes and applying for public benefits.
"Handing out this secure form of ID to people who have no legal right to be in our country presents a statewide and national security threat," said Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks.
Only once, 10 years ago, did supporters taste victory, but it fizzled quickly. Then-Gov. Gray Davis signed an immigrant driver's license bill in 2003, but it was repealed before becoming law after the Democratic governor was recalled in favor of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
California is home to an estimated 2.8 million undocumented immigrants, nearly one of every four nationwide, state records show.
Only New Mexico, Utah and Washington currently provide widespread driving privileges to undocumented immigrants, Alejo's aides said.
Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at California State University, Los Angeles, said that "Latinos have never been in a better position" to send a license bill to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk.
"You never know what Jerry is going to do with it, though," Regalado said. "He remains kind of a befuddlement to predict."
Brown spoke against granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants on the campaign trail in 2010.
Spokesman Gil Duran said that Brown continues to prefer comprehensive national reform to piecemeal efforts. He recently vowed to push Congress for a "pathway to citizenship."
Brown has not taken a stand on AB 60.
"Until there's a bill on his desk and he's had time to talk to legislators, it's not something that he'd take a position on," Duran said.
Brown boosted proponents' hopes last year by signing legislation allowing about 400,000 undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, participants in President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Obama's program gives the right to work in the United States for two years to numerous undocumented immigrants who have lived in the country for at least five years, entered as minors, and generally have lived productive lives since then.
Brown also signed legislation in 2011 that allows numerous residents who entered the country illegally as minors and attended California high schools to apply for college financial aid.
Key Latino groups fought for Brown's election in the 2010 campaign. In his first stint as governor, from 1975 to 1983, Brown helped champion the cause of the United Farm Workers union by signing a historic farm labor relations law.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said that California should be a trailblazer in extending driver's license and other rights to undocumented immigrants. "I've been a consistent supporter," he said.
Proponents claim that allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses would ensure that they are trained, tested and insured.
The issue is politically divisive, however. Fifty-six percent of California voters reject the idea, according to a Field Poll last fall.
Republican Assembly members Jeff Gorell of Camarillo and Kristin Olsen of Modesto both want Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would create a framework for longtime undocumented residents to obtain citizenship.
But Gorell was critical of piecemeal legislation, including AB 60, saying that the "unintended consequences of these bills is to separate my constituents into categories and classes, promote cultural divide, and create legal tension between state and federal laws."
Olsen took a different tack, saying that in light of the federal government's failure to enact comprehensive reform, she would be willing to consider AB 60 and other such bills. She stopped far short of endorsing the measure, however.
"We owe it to the residents of California to do everything we can to really look at all the issues surrounding immigration in California and do what we can to perhaps move policies forward, if and when they make sense," she said.
Rob Stutzman, GOP strategist, noted that Democrats alone can pass AB 60 because they control both houses of the Legislature.
The bill is not likely to win substantial Republican support until Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform, he said.
"While there are a lot of practical reasons that it makes good sense, it's kind of hard to understand how you can get a document to drive legally here if you came here illegally," Stutzman said. "I think that most Republicans are going to have a hard time getting past that."
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