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Saturday, June 05, 2004

The Sacramento Bee -- sacbee.com -- Editorial: Illegal immigrant drivers

The Sacramento Bee -- sacbee.com -- Editorial: Illegal immigrant drivers

Editorial: Illegal immigrant drivers
Cedillo bill protects us all
- (Published June 3, 2004)
When he signed legislation to repeal a law that allowed illegal immigrants to obtain California driver's licenses, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to support a new license bill if it addressed his security concerns. Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, has introduced SB 1160, which goes a long way in meeting those concerns. The governor ought to support it, not because the bill will make life easier for illegal immigrants but because it makes all Californians safer.


The governor says the bill falls short because it does not require a mark on the license that would identify the license holder as an illegal immigrant. Cedillo rightly refuses to include such an identifier. He fears it would set up undocumented immigrants for discrimination and exploitation and would discourage large numbers of illegal immigrants from getting licenses. That would defeat the whole purpose of the bill - to get more drivers licensed and insured.


Depending on whose estimate you believe, somewhere between 1 million and 2 million illegal immigrants are driving in California without licenses. That's both dangerous and costly. Those drivers have not been tested for competence behind the wheel. Because they are not licensed, they cannot buy insurance or in some cases even register their cars. California is losing millions of dollars in registration fees that help finance cash-strapped local governments. As the number of uninsured drivers mounts, auto insurance premiums for those who are insured increase.


Cedillo's bill would give undocumented immigrants who have applied for legal status or who pledge to do so a chance to obtain a California driver's license. Applicants must present proof of identification - either a passport or matricula consular, an official ID card issued by the their home country. They also must submit a full set of fingerprints and undergo a state and federal criminal background check.


Critics say the bill is likely to increase the threat of terrorism, a view that this page has echoed in the past. But that view seems less persuasive with the passage of time.


Sophisticated foreign criminals determined to commit terrorist acts aren't likely to be deterred by a law that denies licenses to illegal immigrants. Keeping driver's licenses out of the hands of hundreds of thousands of California residents who overstay their visas or sneak across the border to harvest crops, clean houses and wash dishes creates many more problems than it solves.


An example: Because cars can be confiscated from unlicensed drivers, local police say many immigrants caught in minor traffic violations flee rather than stop, creating serious hazards to other motorists.


California's driver's license debate plays out against the backdrop of an inconsistent and ambivalent federal immigration policy. The nation's borders remain porous. There is no active campaign to expel the millions of illegal immigrants who work in menial jobs that Americans won't take. Federal authorities don't regularly raid factories, restaurants, hotels or farms where illegal immigrants make up more than half the work force. And, most telling, employers who hire illegal immigrants are rarely punished. Finally, President Bush has proposed a new policy that amounts to at least temporary legalization for large numbers of immigrant workers who are in this country illegally.


If illegal immigration is not enough of a terrorist threat to warrant a consistent effort by the federal government, why should it be of such concern to California?


Cedillo's bill to grant driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants who live and work among us is not a reward for criminal behavior. It is a recognition of the very complicated facts on the ground. It is a way to manage a difficult situation that best protects everyone. It deserves the governor's support.

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