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Monday, June 21, 2004

Illegal Immigrant Drivers' Licenses: Here We Go Again

Illegal Immigrant Drivers' Licenses: Here We Go Again

Illegal Immigrant Drivers' Licenses: Here We Go Again

Jennifer Nelson, Special to SF Gate
Monday, June 21, 2004

Last year, one of the hot-button issues that prompted the voters to throw Gov. Gray Davis out of office was his signing of a bill to allow illegal immigrants to receive California driver's licenses. Californians voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger as Davis' replacement in part because the challenger promised to have the measure repealed before it took effect.

So, why is the state Legislature once again moving a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain a California driver's license?

The bill moved out of the state Senate Transportation Committee last week on a party-line vote, Democrats voting yes and Republicans opposing it.

In 2003, Davis signed Senate Bill 60, which allowed people to obtain a driver's license without having a Social Security number -- a strategy specifically designed to provide a way for illegals to obtain a license.

Davis, normally a dedicated reader and follower of public-opinion polls, somehow ignored the people's attitudes on this issue. A September 2003 Field Poll showed 59 percent of registered voters disapproved of SB 60, while 34 percent supported it.

In his first month in office, Schwarzenegger, reminding the Legislature of the public's strong opposition to the law, convinced the lawmakers to repeal the bill.

The current bill is opposed by grassroots Republican activists and a key Hispanic activist organization, although for substantially different reasons. While Republicans oppose the entire notion of granting illegal immigrants driver's licenses, representatives of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund don't like the fact that the bill does not ban the state from sharing immigration-status information with the federal government.

As part of a campaign to change public opinion about granting drivers' licenses to illegals, Sacramento's chief of police, Albert Najera, recently wrote an opinion piece for the Sacramento Bee in which he argued that his officers are wasting time towing vehicles of people who do not have legal driver's licenses.

"Why are we penalizing people for coming to California after we entice them here with jobs and quality-of-life standards far above what they can ever achieve in their homelands?" he wrote. "Why don't we face reality and concede that we cannot keep our standards of living and our low cost of quality products and services or our booming building industry without foreign nationals?"

According to Najera, "To simply say these people are 'illegal' and wait for the Feds to do something is hurtful, wasteful and divisive."

I'm sure I'll get loads of e-mail from readers who are offended that I use the term "illegal immigrants" instead of "undocumented residents" or "foreign nationals." Najera and others believe it is "hurtful" and "divisive" to use such phrases.

The fact is, there are legal immigrants, and there are illegal immigrants. Every year, people -- many of whom waited months or years to get legal approval to move to our great nation (including our current governor) -- come to this country using the proper legal channels. Others break the law by crossing our borders in the thick of the night or arriving on legally granted visas and outstaying their welcome. It's that simple.

You have to just laugh at Najera's argument that it is our fault we have illegal immigrants because we "entice" them with a high quality of life.

Perhaps the next time a criminal breaks into a jewelry store in Sacramento, he should just tell the police the shop owner was "enticing" him with expensive jewels and watches. Why should he go to jail for just breaking some glass? The real fault lies with the shop owner, right?

No, Chief Najera, the state shouldn't be handing out legal documents to illegal immigrants just because it might be "hurtful" or "divisive" to apprehend people driving without the proper documentation.

For most people, the issue of immigration is simple. Foreign nationals should respect our laws and apply to come here legally. Those who are here illegally should be sent back to their homelands and told that, if they wish to return, they must use the proper legal channels to do so. Especially in these times of terrorism threats, our government should have information on all foreign visitors, immigrants and refugees living within our borders.

Opponents of the United States' efforts to control immigration argue that the national economy will collapse without illegal immigrants to care for our children, cut our grass and clean our homes.

First, the people and companies who hire illegal immigrants are breaking the law. We should be penalizing them, not ignoring them.

But, as with our effort to control the border traffic, we seem to have abandoned our efforts to enforce that law, too. In January, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that between 1992 and 2002, the number of illegal workers arrested each year at work sites dropped from 8,027 to 1,254. Further, nationwide, the number of companies fined for hiring illegal workers tumbled from 1,063 to just 13!

The federal government needs to crack down on employers who ignore the laws. And immigrant-advocate groups should be loudly calling for such a crackdown. How can we protect employees we don't know about?

Opponents of the driver's-license bill are made out to be anti-Latino, when in fact illegal immigrants in our state and nation hail from all parts of the world. California has 12 million Latino residents, yet only about 2 million are here illegally.

Politicians and advocates need to stop framing the debate over illegal immigration in Latino terms. People who want the country's immigration laws to be enforced are not automatically anti-Latino.

Frankly, I have to wonder whether, if California shared a border with China, the Latino caucus would be pushing to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

According to a recent news article, Schwarzenegger opposes the driver's-license bill in its current form but would consider signing a bill that grants licenses to illegals as long as the document indicates that the holder is an illegal immigrant.

Schwarzenegger is wrong to sign any bill allowing illegal immigrants to possess such a document. I'm willing to bet that the 59 percent of Californians who disapproved when Davis signed SB 60 haven't changed their minds.

On the day Davis signed the bill, Schwarzenegger released a statement that said, "I am an immigrant. I waited for 10 years to get my American citizenship. And I know first-hand how immigrants who come to this country and obey the laws have struggled to achieve their dreams. I am pro-immigrant. But we should not invite fraud or undermine law enforcement. The federal government has expressed security concerns over this measure, and, in a time of heightened national security, we should not undermine our nation's immigration laws."

Schwarzenegger was right at that time. It is unfair to the people who dutifully wait to come to this country legally for the government to create programs and services for people who have knowingly broken our laws by entering our nation illegally.

Instead of giving them driver's licenses, we need to promptly send them back to their homelands (unless they have committed a serious crime here) and invite them to legally apply to move to the United States.

If we have to pay more for our fruits and vegetables, more to have our grass cut and more to avoid having to clean our own toilet, so be it. At that point, I think we'd have a very interesting debate on national immigration policy.

Jennifer Nelson, an Oakland writer, worked in policymaking positions in the Deukmejian and Wilson administrations. She can be reached at jlnelson1990@yahoo.com.

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