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Driver's Ed for California

September 2 2001

"Lemme see your license." Those words are always disconcerting. But for some illegal immigrants, that classic cop request triggers panic, because even if one is in line for legal resident status, a California driver's license remains out of reach.

Californians who apply for a license must provide a Social Security number and proof of legal residency, such as a green card. In Tennessee, North Carolina and Utah, an immigrant can obtain a driver's license even if he or she is not waiting to become legal. In North Carolina, an applicant who lacks a Social Security number can receive a license by presenting other ID, including a voter registration card from another country. "The ability to drive is very helpful to our newest residents in getting their lives established here," said North Carolina state Sen. Wib Gulley.

Why does California lag in recognizing this? Apparently Gov. Gray Davis has yet to realize that the state is no longer as anti-immigrant as it was in 1994. Back then, at the height of the push for Proposition 187, some state officials tried to make us believe that undocumented immigrants would go back to Mexico or Guatemala or Ukraine if they couldn't get a driver's license. Seven years later we can confirm that many people drive to their jobs whether they are here legally or illegally; with or without a driver's license. Soon, Davis will have a chance to rectify the mistake he made a year ago when he vetoed a bill to redress the issue. For the second year Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) is proposing legislation to modify the requirements for getting a driver's license. AB 60 recently passed the Assembly, 53 to 20. Soon it will reach the Senate floor, where it is likely to be approved easily.

Cedillo's measure protects against fraud by demanding that people who don't have a Social Security number show an Internal Revenue Service taxpayer identification number. If an applicant passed a driver's test, he would receive a license valid for three years. If, somewhere along the line, the Immigration and Naturalization Service rejected his bid for legal residency, he would not be able to renew the license.

California has more applicants waiting for the INS to process legal residency applications than any other state, and the wait can be far longer than in the lines at the DMV. The bill could allow as many as 250,000 of these immigrants to drive legally in the interim. The only reason to deny them this privilege is to punish them for being in the country illegally. That's as shortsighted as it is petty.

It's good that Cedillo's bill would make the lives of some immigrants a bit easier. It's good too that it would make California's roads safer by assuring that these newly licensed drivers had passed the same tests as other residents and were eligible for insurance.

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