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Published Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

Driver licensing for immigrants now up to Davis




Three weeks ago, when the conversation was about farmworkers and not terrorists, a bill to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses in California seemed to be heading for approval.

But now as it sits on Gov. Gray Davis' desk, the measure may become one of the casualties of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And if that happens, it may derail a national movement to make it easier for undocumented laborers to obtain driver's licenses.

The bill, AB 60, by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, would waive a state law requiring people who apply for driver's licenses to submit Social Security numbers.

Cedillo and his supporters -- including the California Farm Bureau, the insurance industry and even the Sacramento Police Department -- have argued that millions of illegal immigrants are driving anyway and should be tested and insured to increase highway safety.

But suddenly everything has changed, as it has with other immigration issues.

Lawmakers in Virginia, Connecticut, Illinois, North Carolina and other states are racing to tighten security requirements for obtaining driver's licenses. Their fear: that the hodgepodge system of issuing driver's licenses and ID cards across the United States is riddled with holes and allowed the terrorists to gain easier access to commercial airplanes on Sept. 11.

"Things have changed dramatically. This isn't just about Mexican farmworkers any more,'' said Lt. David Myers, a national expert on ID cards who supervises the fraudulent-ID section of the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco in Tallahassee. "All the states are reviewing their issuance procedures. The concern is about people coming to get a second set of identities, people involved in criminal activities.''

Last week, the FBI arrested several people in Virginia accused of helping supply four of the hijackers with false Virginia state ID cards that they may have used to get access to airplanes. Authorities also arrested an alleged associate of Osama bin Laden -- the prime suspect in the attacks -- in Detroit who held five different driver's licenses.

"These attacks have changed the discussion,'' said Alberto Benitez, a professor of immigration law at George Washington University School of Law in Washington, D.C.

Benitez said he supports giving undocumented workers driver's licenses to improve highway safety. But he understands the shifting politics.

"I don't think there will be any backlash against your governor if he doesn't sign the bill,'' Benitez said. "Any politician who does anything that could be seen as helping terrorism is committing political suicide.''

Davis vetoed a similar bill last year, saying he was worried about fraud. His staff made it clear that if the bill's backers made changes, he might change his mind. Now he's not saying what he'll do.

"Whether the bill will meet what the governor is looking for in terms of our identity theft and fraud laws remains to be seen,'' said Roger Salazar, a spokesman for Davis. "Has what happened on Sept. 11 given this issue a higher profile? Probably. But his concern has been there even before the tragedy.''

The issue is part of a wider reconsideration by the public and politicians about immigration in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Lawmakers in Congress have called for increased border patrols, more limits on visas and other changes.

Currently, California has some of the strictest driver's license rules of any state.

Applicants must submit a Social Security number and proof of legal residency, such as a birth certificate or resident alien card, said Armando Botello, a spokesman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

"We verify the number with the Social Security Administration to prove you are who you say you are,'' Botello said.

Under AB 60, anyone applying for a California driver's license could submit a taxpayer ID number "or other identifier that is determined appropriate'' by the DMV instead of a Social Security number.

The Internal Revenue Service issues taxpayer ID numbers to non-citizens, including illegal immigrants, to track payroll deductions and dependents of legal residents.

Cedillo's bill would allow people to apply for driver's licenses if they show that they have applied for legal status with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. To do that, they must show a letter or receipt from the INS stating they have filled out initial paperwork.

"This bill is a public safety bill,'' Cedillo said. "We are as a society safer and better off if we know the 1 million drivers affected by this are tested, insured and identifiable.''

On Sept. 14, with little discussion about terrorism, the bill passed the California Senate by a 23-8 vote and the Assembly by a 52-20 vote. It was supported entirely by Democrats, including Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, and Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys.

Supporters say the issue is key to Latinos.

"It says a lot about the respect that elected officials have for Latino immigrants,'' said Liz Guillen, legislative counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in Sacramento. "If people want our labor they ought to be able to give us a license to drive so we can get to work.''

But Guillen conceded she is worried about post-Sept. 11 security concerns.

"We're concerned that this bill will be a victim now,'' she said. "But this isn't about terrorists or terrorism.''

Critics say, however, that approving the bill would be a disaster for public safety.

"We shouldn't be making it easier for people to get official documents who haven't been given proper background checks,'' said Rick Oltman, western director for the Federation of American Immigration Reform in San Francisco.

State Sen. Maurice Johannessen, R-Redding, is a Norwegian immigrant who voted against the bill.

"Someone could come into the country and get a driver's license to do almost anything,'' he said. "The easier you can obtain ID, you are opening a lot of possibilities. And after Sept. 11, this is getting to be pretty serious business.''

One person who does not support it is San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, who opposed efforts by Assemblyman Manny Diaz, D-San Jose, to have the San Jose City Council endorse it last year.

"The mayor was concerned about fraud and abuse,'' said David Vossbrink, a spokesman for Gonzales. "The same concerns are heightened today. We need to take a close look at balancing the rights of immigrants and making sure we have a safe and secure society.''