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Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Immigrant rights put fence-straddling Davis on the spot

(Published April 3, 2001)

When California Democrats attended a state convention in Anaheim last weekend, they had to pass through a picket line established by immigrant-rights activists demanding that state government remove what they see as discriminatory barriers.

The demonstrators took their cue from newly elected Mexican President Vicente Fox, who during a visit to California last month urged Gov. Gray Davis and other California politicians to grant fuller rights to immigrants, including those who entered the United States illegally.

The demands put Democrat Davis on the spot. He's torn between his desire to solidify political support among Latino voters as he begins to campaign for re-election in 2002 and his wariness about alienating still-dominant white voters who just seven years ago enacted a tough anti-illegal immigration ballot measure (Proposition 187) and probably would do so again if given the chance.

Davis has walked this line before, in arranging the indirect legal death of Proposition 187, while refusing to undo other anti-illegal immigrant measures. And he finds himself straddling it again.

Two specific issues have come to symbolize the conflict: whether it should be easier for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, regardless of their status, and whether they should also be granted access to public colleges with the low costs charged to California residents. Davis indicated during Fox's visit that he had not changed his position on college fees. Last year, he vetoed a bill to grant undocumented immigrant students resident status.

The Anaheim demonstration, organized by Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, focused on the driver's license issue. As the immigration debate reached its zenith in 1994, with Democrats worried about a backlash from white voters, the Legislature passed and then-Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation that makes it very tough for undocumented immigrants to obtain driving permits. After Davis succeeded Wilson and the ranks of Latino legislators swelled, the Legislature voted to repeal the license crackdown, only to have it vetoed by Davis twice. As he rejected last year's version, Davis said that loosening licensure standards would be "an invitation for fraud."

Immigrant-rights advocates reject that position and complain that under Davis, the state Department of Motor Vehicles has not only denied license applications from undocumented immigrants but reported them to police. The DMV "has sought to systematically criminalize otherwise hard-working, honest and decent tax-paying residents of our state," Hermandad Mexicana said in a recent letter to Maria Contreras Sweet, Davis' business, transportation and housing secretary. Attached to the letter is a criminal complaint filed against a woman who had sought to renew her DMV identification card in Fullerton. The woman, the letter to Contreras-Sweet said, was turned over to police, who "interrogated her and rifled through her purse" before the false-statement charge was filed. The DMV practice was termed "immigrant racial profiling."

Davis, it appears, will get another chance soon to either veto a third version of the licensure bill or reverse himself. A virtually identical bill, carried again by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, sailed through the Assembly Transportation Committee on Monday, despite objections of Republicans and "immigration reform" groups who echoed Davis' concerns about fraud. And another version of the student fee bill, carried by Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, D-Los Angeles, is also headed his way.

With his approval ratings now tumbling because of his management of the state's energy crisis, Davis may have to rethink his opposition to both measures as Latino leaders and immigrant-rights advocates turn up the heat. Latino voters could be a critical factor if, as now appears possible, Davis' re-election campaign becomes tougher than he previously thought.

The Bee's Dan Walters can be reached at (916) 321-1195 or dwalters@sacbee.com.