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Bill would allow driver's licenses for immigrants

Filed: 09/10/2000

Californian staff writer

Rigoberto Toscano and Ines Acevedo said it's almost like living as non-persons.

Because their legal residency status is pending, the husband and wife, both 38, are prohibited from obtaining driver's licenses. That's a privilege only for legal residents and U.S. citizens.

The rule is not fair, the cook and waitress say. There are too many people like them who need to drive to work and everywhere else but can't because they are waiting - and waiting - to hear from federal immigration officials on their legal status requests.

A proposed bill sitting on the governor's desk could change that.

Assembly Bill 1463 would allow immigrants seeking legal status to apply for a state driver's license.

Current law requires all individuals applying for a California driver's license to present their Social Security numbers and prove their legal presence in the United States.

Under the proposed bill, applicants would be able to use certain Immigration and Naturalization Service documents, such as applications to adjust from temporary to permanent resident and applications for asylum.

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, said the current law has created dangerous driving conditions for all Californians. He said his bill is meant to prevent accidents caused by immigrants who don't know about traffic rules.

"As a matter of public safety, California should encourage and adopt a policy that attempts to properly train and test as many drivers as possible," Cedillo said in a prepared statement.

"By allowing these specific immigrants, many of which are caught in the INS backlog, to obtain a driver's license, AB 1463 will ensure that a large and growing percentage of our population receive proper and adequate training and testing."

The bill has received support from law enforcement, insurance and immigration groups, among others.

But, locally, the bill wasn't as popular.

State Sen. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, opposed the bill because he believes only legal residents and U.S. citizens should have a driver's license, said Terry Reardon, the senator's chief of staff.

Reardon said there is concern that the bill would allow immigrants the ability to use the license for private and public services, such as cashing checks.

He said the immigrant application process doesn't always guarantee the petitioner will be granted legal status.

The solution, Reardon said, lies in INS getting the staff or equipment it needs to speed up the approval process.

Assemblyman Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, agrees, saying the heart of the problem is a federal issue.

Ashburn said Republican presidential candidate George Bush has a proposal he would endorse: shorten the citizenship process from up to five years to six months. Ashburn also supports Bush's idea about splitting the INS into two agencies.

He feels Cedillo's bill would also create problems for child support collection since many agencies use a driver's license to confirm someone's identity.

"One of the most valuable pieces of identification that people can have is a California driver's license," Ashburn said. "I think what the bill does is create an opportunity for fraud, and undermines child support collection.

"Franky, this is a federal issue. I'm hoping (the governor) will veto the bill."

The bill is still under review, and Gov. Gray Davis has not yet taken a position, said spokesman Roger Salazar.

Davis has until Sept. 30 to make a decision.

Toscano and Acevedo hope it will be one in their favor.

"If I win a prize, if I cash a check, if I want to drive, I need a driver's license," said Acevedo, who doesn't own a car. "I can't do none of that right now.

"I've suffered a lot, to come here and work, and wait to hear from INS. I'm just so happy there's people supporting us."

Elias Reyes, 29, who has also applied for legal residency, said he is frustrated because the only jobs he can land are those in the fields, where employers sometimes look the other way when it comes to documentation. Reyes said such positions as delivery driver or heavy equipment operator are out of his reach because he doesn't have a license.

He said he would be among the first willing to take a driving class and test if the bill were approved.

A construction worker, Victor Vargas, 23, said he is paid in cash to avoid the troubles of cashing a check.

"We can't better ourselves because we don't have a license," said Vargas. "It's important for everything. I hope the governor helps us."

Vargas said he would feel better if he and other immigrants had the chance to learn the rules of driving. There would be fewer accidents, he said.

"I understand you have to respect the laws," Vargas said. "Right now, I know and respect the signal light and the stop sign. But, there's more driving regulations that I need to know. "

Manuel Arizaga, 19, agreed.

"I run the risk of getting into an accident every day," Arizaga said. "The bill would be excellent, perfect, if it passed."