Possible political U-turn on illegal immigrant licenses

8:57 PM, Jul 5, 2013   |    comments
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There was a time when any legislation to grant drivers licenses to those without legal immigration status would have produced heated, angry debate at the state Capitol.

But last week,  a bill to do just that quickly and quietly made its way through a state Senate hearing -- just three stops away from a spot on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown by late summer.

Assembly Bill 60 would make an illegal immigrant eligible to receive a California drivers license as of Jan. 1, 2015 -- provided the person passes the regular exam, and provides proof of identity and well as residency in the state.

If the bill is ultimately signed into law, California would join several other states now moving in the same direction on what used to be an issue too politically volatile to even consider.

"We're, in fact, behind the times here in California," said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, at Tuesday's hearing of the Senate's transportation committee.  The bill passed with bipartisan support.

AB 60 is modeled on the law now in effect in the state of Washington, requiring additional proof of identity and residency from the license applicant -- from a marriage certificate to a copy of utility bill.  Alejo agreed to an amendment to his bill, to exclude a commercial drivers license from the more open process.

But it's the changing politics of the issue that's perhaps most fascinating.  For most of the years since Gov. Pete Wilson's 1993 signing the law requiring a "legal presence" to obtain a license, the issue has been at the center of the illegal immigration fight in California.

In 2003, weeks before his eventual removal from office and trying to shore up his support among Latinos and liberal groups, Gov. Gray Davis signed into law a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to be issued a license.  But before the law ever took effect, Democrats agreed to repeal it when newly elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to work an alternative as a compromise.

But one was never found.  Schwarzenegger vetoed Democratic proposals in 2005 and 2008 that were sent to his desk.

Unlike those earlier efforts, the 2013 version has bipartisan support -- albeit only barely, with two GOP legislators so far voting in favor of AB 60 during its journey through the statehouse.

Supporters have found success by focusing on safety, and have used a 2012 study by the California Department of Motor Vehicles that concluded unlicensed drivers are three times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes.

"If we can get people trained," said Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres in the most recent hearing, "I think that makes my family safer and I think it makes everybody in California safer, as well."

Opponents have also changed their tactics -- no longer focusing on immigration, but pointing to a federal law (PDF) that says state drivers licenses not issued on the basis of a Social Security number may one day be rejected by federal officials.

That could mean a residents of states where licenses are issued to those in the U.S. illegally could see that license rejected at places like airports.

"That would put all Californians at a disadvantage," said Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Hesperia, during floor debate on AB 60 in late May.

But federal officials haven't enforced those provisions in any state, and there has been talk that the federal immigration reform effort could somehow include a change allowing states to move forward on this issue.

That's already happened with a subset of the undocumented immigrant population: those brought to the U.S. as children. Federal actions to expand the rights of those non-citizen residents led to a 2012 state law that allows them to legally obtain a license.


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