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Bill targets immigrant [illegal alien] drivers

Bill targets immigrant [illegal alien] drivers

http://www.fresnobee.com/business/story/0,1703,195492,00.html

Bill targets immigrant drivers

Legislators hope to let migrants seeking legal status obtain drivers licenses

By Robert Rodriguez The Fresno Bee

(Published September 16, 2000)

Farmworker Juan Morales is tired of depending on others to get to work.

For several years, he has been unable to get a California drivers license because he is not a legal permanent resident.

"You worry when you get inside some of those vans, especially when the person giving you the ride knows less about driving than you," Morales said. "But I have to get to work. If I don't work, I don't get paid. And right now, I have no other choice."

A 1994 state law reversed the decades-old practice of allowing undocumented residents [illegal aliens] to obtain drivers licenses.

California legislators say the ban created a host of unintended consequences, affecting everyone from farmworkers to professional athletes.

Legislators are urging Gov. Davis to sign Assembly Bill 1463 that would allow immigrants seeking legal status the chance to get a license.

Davis' spokesman Roger Salazar said the governor "has not made a decision on that bill."

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, author of the measure, said the current law has unfairly kept legions of immigrants from driving.

Worse yet, it has forced them to drive without a license or insurance, while they await the outcome of their application for legal status.

Cedillo said that in his district the problem applies to garment workers from Central America as well as some foreign-born professional athletes.

Local Immigration and Naturalization Service officials admit there is a backlog of applications. Currently, the process for permanent residency can take 36 months.

All told, Cedillo's staff estimates as many as 1.2 million people in California are affected.

"Fundamentally, this is a public safety issue," Cedillo said. "But many people have told me that it seems ridiculous that we do not want everyone in this state to get a license and learn how to drive. We did that for 65 years and it didn't seem to bother anyone."

Those who endorse the restrictions believe that allowing undocumented immigrants to get a license enables them to obtain other documents that can give them the appearance of a legal identity.

Cedillo says that while he doesn't believe that ever happened, it isn't possible with his bill.

Under his proposal, only immigrants who have documentation showing they applied for, or are extending, their legal status are eligible.

Those with no Social Security number must sign a sworn affidavit confirming they do not have one.

They also must get a taxpayer identification number.

Cedillo's bill has garnered widespread support from more than 80 organizations including the Nisei Farmers League, the California Peace Officers Association and Proyecto Campesino.

"We are trying to reward people for trying to be legal," said Assembly Member Sarah Reyes, D-Fresno, a supporter of the bill.

It is opposed by the Federation of American Immigration Reform and some legislators, including Sen. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

Terry Reardon, Costa's chief of staff, said the senator believes the state should not grant a drivers license to someone who has not fully completed the legal residency process.

In the central San Joaquin Valley, where unlicensed drivers transporting farm laborers presents a chronic problem, Cedillo's bill is widely supported.

California Highway Patrol figures show that 17.5% of the 916 farm labor vehicles stopped during a statewide crackdown this year were driven by unlicensed drivers.

Sgt. Ray Madrigal, one of the leaders of the enforcement team, said he suspects many of those drivers were not legal residents.

"A lot of what we hear out there is that the drivers would get a license if the state would allow them to do it," Madrigal said.

Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League, said his organization supported the bill, in large part, because it would help ensure that more farm labor van drivers are trained and licensed.

"This is not asking anyone to break the law," Cunha said. "This is just asking that people who are in the process of gaining legal status be allowed to get a drivers license and insurance."

Statewide, the Department of Insurance estimates 22.6% of cars on the road are uninsured, although it is unclear how many of those are undocumented residents.

Members of the California Farm Bureau Federation also endorse the idea of relaxing the rules.

Kerry Whitson, vice chair of the farm bureau's labor committee, said the idea of banning undocumented residents from getting a drivers license has not significantly reduced the flow of foreign workers.

A University of California analysis bears that out.

In 1997, 43% of the state's agricultural labor force was undocumented.

"The people who are here to work will find a way to get to work, whether it's driving their own cars or being forced to accept rides from someone else who may not be proficient," Whitson said.

"I want everybody, farmworkers and otherwise, to have insurance and be proficient drivers. That makes for better and safer roads for everybody."