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Driver's license bill awaits OK

By OLIVIA REYES GARCIA, Californian staff writer e-mail:

Saturday September 29, 2001, 11:05:18 PM

A few weeks ago, Abraham Tristan found himself at the local Department of Motor Vehicles office to renew his driver's license, which after eight years, had expired.

Other than waiting in line, the 38- year- old fast- food worker didn't foresee any renewal problems.

That is, until a DMV worker asked for his Social Security number, a license requirement.

Tristan, an undocumented immigrant, doesn't have one. Now, he doesn't have a driver's license.

The DMV "didn't ask me for a Social Security number years ago," Tristan said. "Now, I don't have a driver's license, something that's valuable to me."

A proposed bill awaiting signature from Gov. Gray Davis could return Tristan's license back to him.

But, for now, the bill's fate remains unclear.

Assembly Bill 60 would allow immigrants in the process of becoming legal residents to qualify for a driver's license.

So far, Davis has not given a position on the bill, though last year, he vetoed a similar proposal, voicing concerns of fraud.

The author of the bill, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, said AB 60 has gone through changes this year to meet security concerns.

He said one of the bill's rules requires that the DMV verify the applicant's pending legal residency status with Immigration and Naturalization Service officials.

In addition, a driver's license applicant would be required to present an INS document signed by federal officials confirming his pending status.

Cedillo said Davis should sign the bill, noting it has the endorsement of law enforcement, agricultural and labor officials.

He said the bill is needed particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Under existing law, undocumented drivers are untested, uninsured and unidentifiable, Cedillo said.

"Are we any safer if we have motorists we can't identify?" Cedillo said. The bill "enhances highway safety for some million drivers. Otherwise, uninsured people will continue to drive without insurance or (taking a) driving test."

The existing law that requires proof of a Social Security number to receive a driver's license was passed in the mid-1990s during Gov. Pete Wilson's administration.

Prior to that law, applicants only needed to provide a name and address to apply for a license, Cedillo said. That method was in place for about 65 years.

Though some assumed the existing law would keep undocumented immigrants off the road, critics of the law say it has not.

Tristan, for example, will now have to risk the chance of getting caught when he drives to and from work.

Other undocumented immigrants in Kern County who are in the process of establishing legal status say the current law is unfair because it keeps them from obtaining automobile insurance, handling personal emergencies, and getting to and from work on time.

Carlos Figueroa, who's being sponsored for legal residency through his brother, said he has to take two buses one way to get to his job washing cars.

"It takes too long to ride the bus," said Figueroa, who often resorts to asking people for rides.

But, getting rides means paying someone for the trip, he said.

"I had a doctor's appointment one time and I needed a ride," Figueroa said. "My uncle called and said he would take me, but he said, 'Give me $15.'"

Which he did.

Jose Robles said he drives though he often worries about getting caught.

"I think it's very necessary to have a driver's license because you need to go to work," Robles said. "Sometimes, when you drive, you feel so scared, thinking the police will stop you, and you will lose your car."

Lettie Hernandez pointed out a driver's license is required to obtain car insurance.

"If you don't have a driver's license, you don't have insurance," Hernandez said. "If you don't have insurance, you don't have a driver's license."

She added a license would make it easier to handle emergencies.

In her case, the expecting mother can make her doctor appointments without having to make her husband to take off from work, she said.

"My husband has a driver's license, but I can't depend on him all the time," she said.

Hernandez is awaiting approval of her legal status and is being sponsored by her husband, an American citizen.

"Sometimes, you have to drive," Hernandez said. "It's not like we want to go and drive around. We need to go to work, go to the doctor and buy groceries. You can't take your dirty clothes on the bus to get to the laundromat."

Francisca Najera said she goes through similar problems.

The solution? A driver's license, she said.

"I am not driving right now," Najera said. "I'm scared to get a ticket. But I am learning how to drive. I don't want to drive without a license."