Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Oakland Tribune Online - Immigrants in game of musical cars

Oakland Tribune Online - Local & Regional News
Immigrants in game of musical cars

60% of autos taken from illegal workers not claimed from Oakland lot


OAKLAND -- In the world of undocumented immigrants, A & B Auto represents death and resurrection.
It's where their autos end up after they are stopped by police and asked the inevitable: "Can I see your license?"

Most have none, and if they're stopped in Oakland, Alameda or Berkeley, they watch as one of 14 tow companies crank their cars up and haul them off to the 34-acre lot just south of the Coliseum complex.

"They're called throwaways," said Bill Taylor, owner of A & B and one of the characters in the parallel world of those who live without documents. It's a universe that has thrived since 1994, the year drivers unable to prove their legal right to be in California could no longer get a legal license.

In it, undocumented immigrants make do with throwaways because if they're stopped,

the car is hauled off. They also risk driving without registration, get friends to register their cars, and find loopholes to legality such as securing a license in one of 11 states that require no proof of legal immigration status. Nearby Oregon, Washington and Utah are among those states.

While some undoubtedly end up on bicycles and public transit, many are as wedded to the car as any native Californian.

"It takes me everywhere," Bruno from Mexico said of his 1988 Ford.

Gil Cedillo, an Assemblymember from Los Angeles, is once again trying to give Bruno and other undocumented immigrants in California the right to drive, but the politics are dicey. One of the reasons Gov. Gray Davis got voted out of office last year was for signing such legislation, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took his place after promising to repeal it.

While undocumented immigrants here are well aware of the debate they live in the here and now, and in their world two facts remain undisputed.

"We need to work," said Pedro, a 30-year-old construction worker. "Without a car you can't move."

And, with that in mind, legislative or real walls mean little.

Cedillo's office believes that many of the estimated 2.4 million undocumented immigrants in California drive. No doubt a good number of them do so on Oakland streets.

Since the U.S. Census counted 52,000 Latinos in Oakland in 1990, and despite a decade of legislation aimed at discouraging immigration, the Census now estimates more than 100,000 live in the city.

In Oakland, said Catalina Bautista, a counselor in the Fruitvale district, they even drive with a license, "tu licencia con dios," or your license with god.

But the licensing god is not always benevolent, and so autos often end up in Taylor's lot. On an average day, he said, 75 cars arrive and 60 percent are unlikely to be picked up. Of those, 80 percent are "absolute junk," ready to be sold for parts or scrap metal, he said.

Taylor has no idea who owns the remaining 20 percent that go unclaimed, but he and others said the cheap but usable cars are just the kind that unlicensed drivers might favor.

These are the cars that are sold at one of the East Bay's weekend car auctions -- A & B holds its own on Wednesdays. There, the undocumented and others will pay as little as $200 to once again become whole and hit the road.

And, it's fairly easy to find undocumented workers who have had the experience of watching their car dangling behind a tow truck.

Pedro, the 30-year-old construction worker, said he was stopped for going five miles over the speed limit. Soon after his car was taken away, he bought another and put it in a friend's name.

Francisco, a 27-year-old who drives to work in Oakland from San Rafael, lost his 1985 Buick to the game. He believes he was stopped for being Latino, but if that was unfair, he concedes guilt to what happened next. The policeman asked for his license and he had none.

No matter. He soon put down $2,000 for his next car.

Lizbeth, 15, said her father lost his license when it came time to renew the one he got before 1994. "He has insurance and stuff, he just don't have a license."

If Lizbeth's father has insurance, many others don't. Jovita Solis, who works with the Spanish Speaking Citizens' Foundation in Fruitvale, said the inability to get a license and insurance can breed a certain disregard for the law. She has a license, she said, and she wants to keep it. So she drives safely, keeps insurance and avoids getting tickets. But for the undocumented immigrant who lives outside the system, why bother to keep insurance or pay tickets?

Bautista alluded to much the same when she said she hears about a lot of hit-and-runs. Oakland police Sgt. Russell Chew agreed the rate of hit-and-runs has risen by a third since the early 1990s, but he attributed this to several factors, including unlicensed and uninsured drivers.

While the Insurance Research Council estimated an average of 22 percent of California's drivers are uninsured, compared to a national average of 14 percent, Chew said it was higher in Oakland, although he declined to say how high.

Of the 11 states where drivers don't have to show proof of legal residence, all have uninsured driver rates lower than California's, according to the council.

Taylor estimated 60 percent of the cars he sees are uninsured. That's a problem for him because it makes it less likely the auto will be picked up. Sometimes, however, he gets lucky.

That happened on a recent Thursday morning when 32-year-old Raul from Mexico City and his friend, 23-year-old Mauricio, walked through the fence to A & B.

Neither had a California license or the right to one, they said. But Raul said he had purchased the car on a tourist visa so he could prove to the police he owned it. That done, and $50 later, he got the clearance slip that Taylor's cashier requested.

Next, the cashier totaled up Raul's charges -- his car had been towed from a lot while he was in Mexico -- and so the bill reached $735.

He winced, but pulled out the cash. Finally, the cashier wanted to see a license. He turned to Mauricio and it became clear why his friend was along.

Mauricio had one, laminated and fully legal from the state of Oregon.


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