Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Oakland Tribune Online - Driving not optional for undocumented workers

Oakland Tribune Online - Local & Regional News
Driving not optional for undocumented workers

Illegal drivers say they have no choice

By Laura Counts, STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND -- Half a year ago, on Dec. 12, merchants on International Boulevard faced a hard choice: Shut down and lose a day's business, or stay open and risk alienating customers.
Gaspar Gamez of the Ciudad de Mexico store said his family hesitated to go along with an economic boycott organized by Mexican-American activists to protest the repeal of the driver's license law for illegal immigrants. The protest fell on a Friday, the busiest day for the store that specializes in wiring money abroad, cashing paychecks and selling phone cards.

But after some thought, the Gamezes locked up and tacked a large anti-Gov. Schwarzenegger banner over the door.

"If you look around, 90 percent of our clientele are immigrants. If we expect them to support us, we have to support them," said Gamez, who has lived in the United States for 30 years. "I remember when we were like them. We've had good luck, but it wasn't so hard then. You could get a driver's license with just a birth certificate."

Such is the depth of feeling in the immigrant community over granting licenses to the undocumented. The issue may have been the final straw for already-beleaguered Gov. Gray Davis, booted from office last year soon after he signed a bill allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses in an effort to court Latinos.

Capitalizing on voter anger in his campaign to replace Davis, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger convinced state Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, to lead a move to repeal his own bill, SB 60. In exchange, Cedillo says he secured a promise from the governor to help advance a new driver's license bill this year. Cedillo has resurrected the issue through SB 1160, which has passed the Senate's Transportation Committee and is now in Appropriations. It must pass both the Senate and Assembly by Aug. 31 and get signed by the governor no later than Sept. 30 to become law. It's Cedillo's fourth attempt in two years, but despite the deal he cut with the governor, he's having problems winning Schwarzenegger's support.

Tangled with the driver's license debate are questions about flawed federal immigration policy, fears about national security, the reality of California's dependence on immigrant labor, and bitter feelings that still linger from the racial politics that surrounded passage in 1994 of Proposition 187 -- which would have denied educational and public benefits to illegal residents had the courts not ruled it unconstitutional.

The debate reflects Californians' ambivalent views toward immigrants. In general, state voters don't much like the idea of giving licenses to those who arrived illegally. A Field Poll done in September, just before the recall election, found 59 percent of voters disapproved of the law signed by Davis. A Los Angeles Times Poll that same month found 63 percent of likely voters opposed it, and some older polls put opposition at 67 percent.

Latinos, who make up the majority of immigrants and have been the main political supporters of a driver's license measure, account for about one-third of the state's population but only 13 percent of voters. And they are far from unified: The Field Poll found 59 percent of Latino voters support a license law.

Meanwhile, 66 percent of non-Hispanic whites opposed it.

Even Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry last week came out against letting illegal immigrants obtain driver's licenses, saying a license is a "privilege."

But a more detailed poll commissioned by Cedillo's office in May shows a slight majority of California voters would support licenses for illegal immigrants if security provisions are added. The poll, by David Binder Research, found about 43 percent of voters would not grant licenses to illegal immigrants under any circumstances. Others have mixed feelings, and said they would support a bill requiring background checks, fingerprinting and citizenship classes for immigrants.

Cedillo's new bill would require those things, plus make applicants pay a $146 fee to cover the costs. He has enlisted support from law enforcement and the insurance industry, and has held town meetings on the subject up and down the state.

Both Cedillo and Schwarzenegger insist their main concerns are public safety.

The Urban Institute's Immigration Studies Program estimated in 2002 there were 2.4 million undocumented immigrants in California -- double the number in 1994. Cedillo argues that many of them are already behind the wheel, without licenses or insurance.

According to the Personal Insurance Federation of California -- a trade group of firms that write about half the policies in the state -- there are 26 million to 30 million cars on the road every day, and about 25 percent of the drivers are uninsured.

That's about 6.5 million to 7.5 million uninsured drivers, who often crash into those who are insured. Such collisions leave the insured driver on the hook for costs -- and frequently, the uninsured driver flees the scene.

"We support it for the safety issues. We are for a bill that will provide testing, licensing and insurance for all drivers," said Jerry Davies of the Personal Insurance Federation. "Also, with so many uninsured drivers, it drives up the cost for those with insurance."

Since 1994, when California's driver's license law was changed to require legal residency, many people have taken to the road with nothing more than their prayers that they don't get stopped. Others have just found loopholes.

One option is to take a road trip to Oregon or Utah or one of nine other states that don't require legal residency to obtain a license. Technically, visitors can drive here on a foreign or out-of-state license as long as it's valid, but those who become residents must get a California license within 10 days. Still, if stopped by police, having something to show is probably enough to get off without being towed.

In New Mexico, leaders say their roads have gotten more secure since Gov. Bill Richardson changed the law last June to allow immigrants to obtain licenses, regardless of their status. Under a parallel campaign by the state, the number of uninsured drivers -- once the highest in the nation at 33 percent -- has dropped to 17.4 percent.

Interestingly, New Mexico has not received the flood of new license applicants it expected. Of the 150,000 immigrants estimated to be eligible, only 13,850 have applied under the new program so far, said Kathleen Baca of the state's tax and revenue division.

"We see it as being successful across the board," Baca said. "It is having an effect in our state, and our overall numbers of uninsured motorists are decreasing."

In Oakland, where Latinos have grown in number more than 70 percent in a decade and are now almost a quarter of the city's population, about 15 percent of people stopped during special enforcement actions over the last two years were unlicensed or had suspended licenses, said Lt. Dave Kozicki.

In instances when police saturated patrols to stop East Oakland's notorious driving "sideshows," 70 percent of cars that ended up towed belonged to unlicensed drivers, Kozicki said.

"It's a huge problem. Some of our other problems in the city are directly related," Kozicki said. "For example, one-third of our accidents are hit-and-run, and we think a lot of that is because of unlicensed drivers."

City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente (Fruitvale-Glenview) said he has no doubt there are many people driving illegally on the streets of his heavily immigrant district. He argues that allowing them to apply for driver's licenses will help police.

"If you have some information on someone, it's better than not having any information at all, which is what we have now," De La Fuente said.

Schwarzenegger's main objective is "the public safety of all Californians and homeland security for our nation," said spokesman Vincent Solito.

"He has not been convinced that the legislation as written will adequately verify the identity of the applicants," Solito said. "He wants to reach a solution that would provide driver's licenses for all while protecting national security. He is proceeding cautiously, and we are not there yet."

Cedillo is still waiting to see what the governor comes up with, said spokesman Edward Headington. He twice met with Schwarzenegger twice, but has not received a counter proposal. The governor had promised to help win a two-thirds vote to pass a new measure with extra security provisions for all immigrants, Headington said.

The main sticking point has been some kind of a marker indicating that the license holder is not a legal resident -- which supporters of the bill call a scarlet letter.

Solito said the governor only raised that as an alternative if the immigrant's identity cannot adequately be verified through other means; Cedillo said it is non-negotiable.

Without a back-and-forth on the issue, though, Cedillo has charged that Schwarzenegger is stalling.

"We have to wonder if he is listening to the Pete Wilson people in the Republican party, or if he is just trying to run out the clock on this session," Headington said.

The California Republican Assembly, until recently led by Prop. 187-author and former Sen. Dick Fountjoy, led a referendum drive against SB 60 and has promised to do so again -- no matter how many security provisions are in the bill.

They scoff at the argument that such a law will make roads safer. Illegal immigrants have broken the law, period, and should not be rewarded with a legal document, they say.

"The security provisions in SB 1160 are ludicrous because you aren't even checking with the home country's database of criminals," said Mike Spence, current president of the California Republican Assembly.

"But the real issue is there is no need for this bill because you can drive on a license from almost any country from the world in California," Spence said. "What supporters of this bill really want is the beginning of amnesty. This goes to employment, registering to vote ... there is a whole set of documents you can obtain with a driver's license. Once you have a driver's license, you are set."

Opposition is fueled by right-wing talk radio and Web sites such as, which refer to Cedillo as a "reconquista" who wants to reward "invaders."

Even if the bill languishes beyond the Aug. 31 deadline, or is vetoed by Schwarzenegger, it's doubtful the issue will go away. Leaders on both sides are too determined.

"If you ask me in the long term, I'm absolutely confident that this will be resolved favorably," said Nativo Lopez, who leads the groups Mexican American Political Association and Hermandad Mexicana, which organized last year's economic boycott and plans another if Cedillo's bill fails.

"This may not have the same emotional impact of Prop. 187, which was so all encompassing and reverberated through every aspect of society because it imposed obligations on teachers, doctors and police officers. But certainly, the targeted group is the same, and all other drivers are affected because they are the ones left holding the bag."


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