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Attacks fuel fears on license proposal: A bill to let immigrants gain driving rights faces rejuvenated opposition.

By Ed Fletcher
Bee Capitol Bureau
(Published Sept. 28, 2001)

Backers of a measure to make it easier for immigrants to obtain California driver's licenses had hoped this would be their year.

They had argued that it made little public safety sense to risk letting undocumented immigrants drive unlicensed and uninsured.

A bill to change California law made it to Gov. Gray Davis' desk, and its author had worked closely with the administration to address the Democratic governor's concerns.

But that was before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the East Coast raised new worries about the ease with which the hijackers obtained official identification.

Opponents of the legislation now say they hope the tragic events will prompt Davis to veto the measure and other "treacherous" immigrant rights bills awaiting his signature.

"Let's hope that this will be the wake-up call," said Barbara Coe, chairwoman of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform.

The driver's license bill, AB 60 by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, would allow driver's license applicants to use an individual federal taxpayer ID number in place of a Social Security number. The federal tax number, given by the federal government to undocumented workers, could be used if the applicant does not have a Social Security number and proves he or she is in the process of attempting to attain legal status.

The measure's supporters, still hopeful the bill will be signed this year, say a knee-jerk response retracting immigrant rights would be a victory for the terrorists.

"I think people understand that we should not capitulate to this act of terrorism in a way that damages public safety," Cedillo said.

Cedillo's measure and AB 540, by Marco Firebaugh, D-East Los Angeles, which would allow longtime California residents to pay the cheaper "in-state" tuition at California colleges regardless of their citizenship status, are public policy changes that have been long sought by immigrant rights advocates.

Davis vetoed similar measures last year but, according to a spokesman, had not decided about this year's versions.

"He had some concerns ... prior to the terrorist attacks," said Davis spokesman Roger Salazar. "We want to do everything possible to strengthen our identity theft laws, not weaken them."

Davis wrote last year that the driver's license bill was an "invitation for fraud."

A state auditor's report released Thursday raised similar concerns.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles should be doing more to protect against identity theft and fraud, the report said. For 20 years, the DMV has required fingerprints of driver's license applicants, but the audit found the department lacks the technology to prevent someone from obtaining multiple licenses with the same computer-stored fingerprint image, the report said.

"They collect all these images, but they can't do anything with them," state Auditor Elaine Howle said.

Latino community leaders, local law enforcement officials across the state and representatives of the insurance and agricultural industries all have voiced support for AB 60.

Concern over terrorism should not prevent the state from enacting a "narrowly and carefully crafted bill to improve public safely," Cedillo said.

"No one can argue that leaving a million drivers untested, unlicensed and uninsured benefits public safety," he said. "There is no nexus between having a driver's license and acts of terrorism."

When shut out of the process, undocumented immigrants either don't drive or drive illegally, he said.

"It does not make safety sense to bar illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses," said Kevin Johnson, professor and associate dean at the University of California, Davis, School of Law. "The current system encourages them to drive without insurance."

Identity theft and fraud are serious issues but are unrelated to access to a driver's license, said Johnson, a specialist in immigration law and civil rights.

Others say facts in the hijacking attacks raise too many new questions about relaxing the requirements.

"My speculation is that the governor of California will not want to enact something like this," said Alberto Benitez, director of the Immigration Clinic at the George Washington University Law School.

Benitez noted that Virginia just pulled the plug on two policies making it easier for immigrants to obtain driver's licenses or identification cards.

The state had allowed sworn affidavits to take the place of official identification and proof of residency. The change, already under consideration, was enacted after the FBI said two of the alleged hijackers used the process to fraudulently obtain state ID cards. According to the complaint, two Virginia men were paid to assist the suspected terrorists in getting bogus affidavits.

Thirteen of the 19 hijackers presented the necessary documentation showing they were legal residents and obtained driver's licenses or identification cards in Florida, said a spokesman for the Florida Motor Vehicles Department.

Opponents of the proposed California change say requiring applicants to prove they are trying to get legal status does not ensure these California drivers will one day be legal residents. Many undocumented immigrants are rejected when applying to remain legally in the county, they point out.

Firebaugh, meanwhile, said he was hopeful his bill to make it easier and cheaper for Californians without legal citizenship to attend state colleges would not be adversely affected by the tragedy.

"In every sense, these students are California residents; they have resided in California for most of their lives," Firebaugh said. "These students have attended and graduated from California high schools and their parents have worked and paid taxes in California."

Immigration opponent Coe said both bills would encourage more undocumented immigrants to come to California.

"We have always been strongly opposed to both of them," she said.