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Bill drives immigrant licenses

State Senate ponders plan to restore roadway rights.

By Lesli A. Maxwell Bee Capitol Bureau

(Published June 21, 2001)

SACRAMENTO -- The Valley knows the horror stories well.

Thirteen farmworkers killed in a grisly collision on a foggy rural road in 1999. Eleven Salvadoran migrants dead after their van crashed in 1997. Five workers killed and burned in a 1996 wreck near Mendota.

Though a whirlwind of legislation has slowed the number of accidents on Valley roads by requiring seatbelts in farm-labor vans and cracking down on rogue van operators, a Los Angeles lawmaker says roads all over the state still are too dangerous because of a law that bans undocumented immigrants from getting drivers licenses.

Assembly Member Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, will be in Fresno today with fellow Democrat Sarah Reyes to drum up support for his AB 60 to make drivers licenses available to immigrants seeking legal residency. His bill, which has cleared the Assembly and is in the Senate, would reverse a 1994 law that barred undocumented residents from obtaining licenses after decades during which they had enjoyed driving privileges. Cedillo projects that more than a million immigrants could be eligible for licenses under his bill.

This is Cedillo's second time around with the measure, which Gov. Davis vetoed last fall. Cedillo hopes to address Davis' concerns about fraud by tying his bill to legislation that would crack down on identity theft.

Cedillo's main argument focuses on public safety. Immigrants will drive with or without licenses, he says. Whether they are farmworkers in the Valley or garment workers in Los Angeles, these are working people who need to get to and from their jobs. Not only do they drive without licenses, they drive without insurance, he says.

"The primary role of government is public safety, and that's what this is really about," Cedillo said. "Our economy is also dependent on this work force and we need to do what we can to stabilize that work force."

It's policy that attracts a broad array of support, from insurance companies and law enforcement to professional sports teams and Valley farmers.

"This just addresses so many different problems, but the number one thing it does is give someone the freedom to drive themselves," said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League. "Farmworkers won't have to rely on some bad guy to drive them to the fields."

But the bill is not without opponents. One organization -- Californians for Population Stabilization, or CAPS -- lobbies against any easing of state restrictions for undocumented immigrants.

"As a matter of pure principle, someone who is not a citizen or legal resident should not be able to get any official document from the state of California," said Diana Hull, president of CAPS. "One of the real dangers of this bill is that drivers licenses are a commonly used identifier. Once you have a drivers license, it's very easy to get other bogus documents."

Cedillo dismisses Hull's argument as "urban myth" and says his bill wouldn't allow for fraud anyway. Only immigrants who have documentation showing they applied for, or are extending, their legal status are eligible. Those who don't have Social Security numbers must sign sworn affidavits that they don't have one and obtain instead a taxpayer identification number.

The reporter can be reached at or (916) 326-5541.