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Foes driven closer by license bill

By Juan Esparza Loera The Fresno Bee

(Published June 24, 2001)

Yes, that was Nisei Farmers League President Manuel Cunha at a rally last Thursday being cheered on by a crowd of about 300, including dozens of United Farm Workers supporters. That scene -- a longtime adversary of UFW founder César E. Chávez being amicable with staunch anti-rancher activists -- would have been unthinkable years ago.

But there he was, accompanied by Paul Betancourt of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, in an effort to drum up support for legislation that would allow qualified immigrants the right to seek drivers licenses.

Assembly Member Gil Cedillo, a Democrat from Los Angeles and strong UFW supporter, introduced Cunha as "extremely intelligent, intellectual, articulate and thoughtful; and someone who has recognized the horror of this issue as a public safety issue."

But don't expect Cunha to be a guest of honor at a UFW convention anytime soon, or to stick a UFW decal on his pickup truck.

What happened Thursday in the parking lot of the Department of Motor Vehicles on Olive Street was an effort to educate the public on the need for Assembly Bill 60. The bill would make 1 million immigrants eligible for drivers licenses if they are in the process of obtaining legal residency status.

"This helps those who are here trying to get legalized status," Cunha says. "Having a drivers license is a need for these people to get to work."

Cunha understands first-hand the problems caused by legislation that has restricted benefits for newly arrived immigrants. His Portugal-born father, he says, would not have qualified for a drivers license under today's rules.

"My dad came here in 1944 and never let go of his country," Cunha says. "Every year, he had to go to the post office and sign up for his legal residency renewal and get his drivers license."

Had he not been given that ability, "I doubt I would be here right now," Cunha says.

Cedillo and fellow Assembly Member Sarah Reyes, D-Fresno, say the legislation is needed to ensure safer public roadways. Unlicensed drivers endanger everyone, they say. In addition, unlicensed drivers cannot obtain auto insurance, and we know what problems can be caused by uninsured drivers.

"This helps people who are legally in the system and trying to become legal residents," Reyes says.

Among those who would benefit are foreign professional athletes, not just farmworkers.

Sure, there are people who will object to any legislation that allows a non-U.S. resident to obtain a drivers license in California. They claim a drivers license is a privilege, not a right. They will cry about the possibility of identification fraud or theft; but those issues have been addressed in Cedillo's new bill. Gov. Davis vetoed similar legislation last year over fears of ID theft or fraud.

So where does that leave the future of AB 60? The proposal was passed by the state Assembly one vote short of being veto-proof. The state Senate Transportation Committee will get the bill in the next couple weeks.

Let's hope anti-immigrant rhetoric won't spoil good legislation.

The columnist can be reached at or at 230-8280.