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Immigrants await bills' fate

Legislation: Efforts to ease tuition residency rules and driver's licenses go to Davis.

September 16, 2001

By MINERVA CANTO and HANH KIM QUACH The Orange County Register

Many of California's undocumented immigrants are anxiously awaiting Gov. Gray Davis' signature on two bills that could alter their daily lives. But there's no telling just how much the political landscape has changed after terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon on Tuesday.

These immigrants may be able to draw upon the support they have gained in the past year. Or they may be left waiting like a bride without a groom.

"This immigration hot potato really touches every aspect of society in America today," said Stephen Eichler of Anaheim, who believes immigration laws should be stricter. "We have now been thrust into a position where we have to question all our policies."

In California, the fate of the two bills passed by the Legislature last week could be the first test in how hospitable the state has become to a population that many say is an important part of the economy. The bills would allow certain undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses and qualify for resident tuition at California colleges.

Nationwide, the mood toward immigrants has been changing. The shift has been especially noticeable in the past year as President George W. Bush reached out to the increasingly powerful Latino population and strengthened the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

Gov. Gray Davis has 30 days to sign the two bills. The Democratic governor vetoed different versions of both bills last year, but lawmakers believe this year could be a turning point for these bills.

One bill, AB540, would allow undocumented students who attend a California high school for three years to pay resident tuition at state colleges. These students now must pay out-of-state tuition, which puts higher education and the hope to climb out of poverty beyond the reach of many. Texas passed a similar bill, and a bill is pending before Congress that would address the issue.

Another bill, AB60, would allow those in the process of becoming legal immigrants to apply for a driver's license using their tax ID numbers or other appropriate identification. It's similar to bills passed by other states.

"It's a political issue. I understand that," said Lupe Guzman, 39, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador. "But we are just asking for something that will help us improve our lives, and that will help society in the long run. I can't see how he wouldn't want that."

Guzman, 39, works 10 hours a day at a downtown Santa Ana office building before fitting in two hours of English classes at night and returning home to her two children. She plans to learn how to drive if the driver's license bill passes. She could then forget about using public buses to get around and spend more time with her children.

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, had immigrants like Guzman in mind when he authored the driver's license bill. "Immigrant labor plays an important part of our economy," he said.

Cedillo's bill faces perhaps the most hurdles even though he has been working closely with the Davis administration to address concerns that it could lead to identity fraud.

The American Insurance Association, Sierra Club, law enforcement, farmers and other groups aligned with Republicans support the bill. Some supporters say it's a measure that affects more than immigrants because it would promote safer roads. They say it also would lower insurance rates as well as more licensed drivers become insured.

But Eichler believes the driver's license bill would provide immigrants with a proof of identity that they would use to obtain rights they don't deserve, such as voting or getting a checking account. He's concerned about the effect of giving illegal immigrants benefits that should only be for U.S. citizens.

"We've reached critical mass where even the illegal aliens are being pushed out and they're not going back to Mexico. They're just going to try to go up," Eichler said. "Why should we give them an instrument to better, better jobs?"

Eichler, a law student and computer consultant, is also troubled by the tuition bill. "If you come here from another country you need to pay for your schooling at your cost," Eichler said.

Some of Orange County's Republican delegation also voted for the education bill authored by Marco Firebaugh, D-Los Angeles, including Assemblyman John Campbell, R-Irvine, and Lynn Daucher, R-Brea. "These people are clearly members and rooted in our community. They're going to stay here every bit as much as you or I are going to stay here," Campbell said. Daucher agreed. But she said she couldn't support allowing about-to-be legal immigrants to have driver's licenses because of identity theft issues and now, fear of terrorists.

Both lawmakers and Assemblyman Tom Harman, R-Huntington Beach, voted for the bill, as did delegation Democrats: Assemblyman Lou Correa of Anaheim and Sen. Joe Dunn of Santa Ana.