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Illegal alien license bill hits detour

http://www.fresnobee.com/local/story/1545650p-1622091c.html

Drivers license bill hits detour

Sept. 11 slowed drive to legalize noncitizen drivers.

By Diana Marcum The Fresno Bee (Published Tuesday, January, 29, 2002 4:55AM)

The little group of activists in front of the state building Monday were outnumbered by the media covering their news conference, ignored by passers-by.

But their presentation of 3,000 local signatures to Gov. Davis' downtown Fresno office marked the latest salvo in the fight to pass a bill important to immigrant workers-- a bill derailed by fears unleashed Sept. 11.

The proposed state law, AB 60, would allow noncitizens to obtain a drivers license. Proponents argue it will make the roads safer for all Californians by ensuring the state's estimated 2 million noncitizen drivers will be trained and tested by the Department of Motor Vehicles and able to obtain car insurance.

Hotly protested by anti-immigration groups, the bill sponsored by Assembly Member Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, slowly garnered bipartisan approval and the support of law enforcement over a four-year period.

By the morning of Sept. 11, it had passed both legislative houses and teetered on the edge of becoming law. Cedillo's staff had a 10 a.m. meeting scheduled that day with the Governor's Office to hammer out language.

By the time the meeting took place a day later, the world had changed.

Now, the state's hot-button immigration issues are crossing paths with a screaming push for tighter security on identification and at the border.

The bill was returned to the Assembly. By the time it makes a return appearance on the governor's desk this session, it will be with a companion bill that may demand such things as thumbprints, a lengthy waiting period, a license clearly marked "immigrant" or biometrics such as eye-scans.

In an unforeseen twist, it may be activists such as those in Fresno who make the bill difficult to pass. Part of a Mexican political base gaining clout, they are not open to anything that sets immigrants apart and makes them a different class of person under law.

Political insiders say the only way to turn the bill into law is to make a universal identifier -- such as a drivers license -- as foolproof as possible.

"We're caught right in the middle, trying to find the common ground," said David Galaviz, legislative director for Cedillo's office.

On Monday, most of the people holding red and blue placards asking Davis to sign the bill immediately represented unions, churches or social service agencies.

Marciela Bejar, 26, only represented herself. A college graduate, she remembers crossing the border at the age of 10, shoved into a semi-truck packed with bodies. She, her mother, and sisters were caught and sent back to Mexico, making the trip a second time to join her father, a fieldworker in Orange Cove. Bejar remembers the elaborate planning her undocumented family endured just for a trip to Fresno. Would it be safer to drive unlicensed at night? Early in the morning? How many could go without drawing attention?

Now a legal resident, on her way to citizenship, Bejar said she sees the issue from both sides of an economic divide.

On the pragmatic side, she wants the law passed so she won't worry about being hit by an immigrant driver who doesn't know the rules of the road or who doesn't carry insurance. On principles formed by her family history, she believes those who work the fields should be able to legally drive to their jobs and errands. Growing up in a family forced to stay hidden had her standing in a city plaza holding a loudly painted sign.

"To me it's just about recognizing people who are here. People who need to work and drive and who are on the road beside you and who aren't leaving," she said. "The other stuff is just the newest excuse to try to keep working families invisible."

The reporter can be reached at dmarcum@fresnobee.com or 441-6375.