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State of 2 minds on migrants [illegal aliens]

State of 2 minds on migrants

NEWS FOCUS: 2 bills get watered down but wouldn't have existed at all a few years ago.


AB 1197 (Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, D-Los Angeles) - Allows immigrants in the process of applying for legal residency with the INS to pay resident tuition at California State Universities or California Community Colleges.

Currently, these students must pay out-of-state tuition because of their residency status. University of California regents also would be asked to consider embracing these students. Out-of-state residents pay $8,118 a year at CSU, while residents pay $2,856. A year at community college costs a nonresident $3,500; residents pay $12 a unit.

To qualify, students must prove:

•They have attended high school in California for three years.

•They have graduated from a California high school.

•They will begin college courses within a year of their graduation.

•They have begun the process of becoming a legal resident or citizen.

AB 1463 (Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles) - Allows immigrants in the process of applying for legal residency with the INS to obtain a driver's license. Immigrants also could give a taxpayer identification number or other Internal Revenue Service identity number in lieu of a Social Security number.

Existing law requires a person to have a Social Security number and be a legal resident in order to obtain a driver's license.

September 19, 2000

The Orange County Register

A pair of bills sitting on Gov. Gray Davis' desk are symbols of the continuing conflict over how to treat the state's estimated 2 million illegal immigrants.

The bills would make it easier for some illegal immigrants to get a driver's license and afford a state college.

Advocates argue the bills don't do enough for the people who cut grass, wash cars and care for children. Critics counter that the country is already struggling to provide adequate services and that an expansion of such benefits would undermine citizens and immigrants living here legally.

The bills land on Davis' desk at a time when Latinos are among the most sought-after voting bloc. Both presidential candidates court them with spurts of Spanish phrases. With immigration being a cornerstone issue among Latino voters, parties perceived as immigration-friendly could curry more favor.

But a mere six years ago, California voters approved Prop. 187, which would have eliminated public benefits for illegal immigrants. A federal court later voided it. Davis last year agreed to abandon further appeals and let Prop. 187 die to the chagrin of nearly two dozen grass-roots, anti-illegal immigration groups statewide.

These contrasting currents buffeted the bills as they bounced through the legislature, leaving virtually no one completely happy.

They don't go far enough in fixing the system for Luis Perez, who thinks that the system forces him - and other working illegal immigrants - to bend the rules to get their fair share.

Perez, who works at an Anaheim car wash, used a fake Social Security card to get a driver's license.

The proposed changes would require people like him to provide proof of application for legal residence and an IRS-assigned number to get a driver's license. Currently, would-be license carriers must be legal residents with a Social Security card.

"We are paying into the system because a lot of us pay income taxes but can't claim the benefits," said Perez, 34. "This is just another example of things we can't do because we don't have the right papers."

But for Barbara Coe, co-author of Prop. 187, the driver's license bill and its companion, which would allow some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at community colleges and at California State University campuses, represent betrayal.

"Illegal aliens are lawbreakers, and this is like rewarding them for violating federal law," said Coe, chairwoman for the Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform. "If Davis signs either one of (the bills), then citizens and lawfully present immigrants have been betrayed again."

When the bills were first introduced in February 1999, they extended driver's licenses and resident tuition privileges to all of the state's estimated 2 million undocumented workers.

But that plan got a chilly reception from Davis. The governor sent word to the sponsors, two Los Angeles Democratic assemblymen, last year that he didn't want to provide services to illegal immigrants, his aides had said.

Since then, the bills have been narrowed to include only immigrants in the process of becoming legal residents - such as scholars, professional athletes or Silicon Valley executives - stuck in the years-long INS maze.

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo's bill, AB 1463, is expected to license as many as 1 million drivers. Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh's bill, AB 1197, would help between 750 and 1,500 students seeking to attend a community college or a Cal State school.

While the bills don't embrace all the state's immigrants, it's a start, advocates said. The legislation tackles problems immigrant-rights advocates frequently mention in pushing for amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

"These would be strong victories, but they're very watered down," said Dennis Kao, policy coordinator for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.

Cedillo said his bill is now so narrowly focused it shouldn't be controversial at all. But a thread of doubt lingers.

"My concern is people are still in 1994, and that was always the problem," Cedillo said.

The governor has not yet taken a position on the latest versions, said spokesman Roger Salazar. If he doesn't act on the bills by the end of the month, they automatically become laws.

Immigrant-rights activists fear that Davis, a controversy-shy moderate, may continue to steer clear of these bills, which they say are needed to help immigrants advance economically.

"My sense is our governor is very concerned about what the polls say, so public perception needs to change. These folks are here and they intend to work and they want to work. If we continue to put up barriers, it's going to make it harder for everyone," Kao said.

The political wrangling on bills that immigrants say barely break new ground is not surprising to them.

"Who is it supposed to help?" asked Jose Abejar, a landscaper in Irvine who would like a driver's license but doesn't qualify even under the proposed bill. "If I qualified for legal residency, then I wouldn't be without papers. That law doesn't make sense."

Aurelia Morelos, 24, has been a hair stylist at a small neighborhood salon since she graduated from high school a few years ago. She wanted to study business administration but discovered she couldn't apply for college when she began filling out the application and couldn't provide proof of legal residency.

"What could I do? So I just went to work where I could," Morelos said. "There are probably lots of other young people like me whose dreams just had to stop because of that requirement."