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Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Taking the High Road With Underground Drivers


In love, as in politics, we should never say or do things in anger. Because later, it's so hard to take them back.

A few years ago, California lawmakers were in a pretty ornery mood about undocumented immigrants living in the Golden State. They did some things they later regretted.

Fueled by public frustration, they backed measures to make life tough for people who came here illegally looking for work. Remember Proposition 187? The 1994 initiative would have kept undocumented residents from receiving most government benefits, kicking them out of health care clinics and their children out of public schools.

Thank God, and the Founding Fathers, for checks and balances. The courts later overturned many of the measure's unconstitutional provisions. It finally took a new governor, tempered by a Latino voter backlash, to defuse the divisive initiative by refusing to appeal its defeat to a higher court.

Now, Gov. Gray Davis has another chance to heal the wounds of the old regime. On his desk is a bill that takes back, at least in part, another hurtful measure enacted in a time of anger. The new bill would make it somewhat easier for immigrants to legally get a driver's license in California, reversing restrictions imposed by Sacramento the year Proposition 187 passed.

The bill survived a two-year obstacle course on its way to approval by the Legislature late last month, weakened by amendments but still standing. Now, Latino backers are pleading: "Gov. Davis, let our people drive!"

The governor has 12 more days to sign AB 1463 or let it die. As of Monday, he hadn't said what he intends to do.

The bill originally was introduced in February 1999 by freshman Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles). At first, Cedillo wanted to make it legal for anybody to get a license, regardless of immigration status. That's how things were before 1994, when the DMV started requiring first-time applicants to provide their Social Security numbers and produce proof of lawful residence in the United States.

As amended, legislation before the governor would allow people to get a license as long as they show they are in the process of becoming legal residents. It also eases the requirement to produce a Social Security number.

When the tighter rules were passed, supporters argued that the strategy would deter illegal immigration and reduce the problem of uninsured motorists because undocumented immigrants would be discouraged from driving.

Boy, were they wrong. If you had the guts to cross the border illegally to find work, what would stop you from driving illegally to work once you found it? Especially with Southern California's weak bus and subway service, abysmal by Mexican standards.

Cedillo countered that Californians only hurt themselves by forcing immigrants to drive without a license. That means they don't take the DMV test, don't learn the traffic laws, don't register their vehicles and don't buy liability insurance. Who pays for that down the road? The motorists involved in crashes with unlicensed drivers. And there's a pile of 'em in this state, which has the nation's fourth-worst record for the percentage of unlicensed drivers involved in fatal crashes, according to a recent traffic safety report entitled "Unlicensed to Kill."

California has created a whole class of underground drivers. Knowing they can lose their cars for 30 days if caught, some unlicensed motorists buy cheap, smog-spewing clunkers they can afford to abandon if they are impounded.

Cedillo's office estimates that as many as 1 million immigrant drivers can come out of hiding if Gov. Davis signs the new bill. Supporters include prosecutors, insurance groups, unions, car dealers and the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents more than 10,000 officers. Even some Republicans, the party of immigration hard-liners, were persuaded to get on board.

"It helps all around if people get licensed, register their cars and buy insurance," said Hispanic Affairs Officer Mario Corona of the Santa Ana Police Department. "Everybody benefits."

Cedillo deserves credit for tackling an unpopular cause when others advised him to play it safe his first term. But we must find even more ways to decriminalize our immigrant labor force. If we need them to mow our lawns, cook our meals and care for our babies, why make it illegal for them to come here and take those jobs?

Maybe we should give them a license to work as well as a license to drive. But whatever we do, let's make sure we don't regret it later.

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Agustin Gurza's column appears Tuesday. Readers can reach Gurza at (714) 966-7712 or