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Monday, July 5, 1999

Bill Would Open Driving to Illegal Immigrants

By PATRICK J. MCDONNELL, Times Staff Writer

In the last two years, Jose Luis Pena has had four vehicles seized by Los Angeles police, the price of driving without a license. The refrigerator repairman has also paid thousands of dollars in fines, towing fees and storage costs.

Yet Pena continues to drive the streets in his battered pickup, always worrying about seeing flashing police lights in his rearview mirror. That would signal yet another loss to the impound lot, another battery of fines.

But Pena, a 31-year-old father of four from Mexico, remains locked in the driver's seat. "To work, to sustain my family," he said, "I have to drive."

Whether Pena and others like him are victims or causes of a larger problem is part of the debate surrounding a controversial bill the state Senate is scheduled to consider Tuesday. It would change state law to allow thousands of illegal immigrants in California to obtain driver's licenses.

The plan, drafted by Assemblyman Gilbert A. Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), would eliminate the requirement that first-time applicants for driver's licenses show proof of legal residency--a mandate implemented in 1994, at the height of California's immigration backlash.

The repeal proposal, which faces an uphill battle in the state Senate, was approved by the Assembly last month.

The legal residency rule, Cedillo argues, has created a hazard for all motorists, clogging the roads with dangerous, unlicensed drivers who cannot legally acquire automobile insurance.

"Whether or not someone believes these people should be here, the fact is that they are here and they are driving," Cedillo said. The first-term assemblyman has attempted to frame his proposal as a safety issue--not as a convenience for illegal immigrants.

Those supporting repeal of the legal residency law include insurance groups, unions, car dealers and the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents more than 10,000 officers.

Backers contend that abolishing the residency rule for driver's licenses makes economic sense, given the important role of illegal immigrant workers in the region's economy.

"These people are here, and if they have transportation, they can get a job," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Opponents, however, say the Assembly proposal would send a mistaken message of welcome to the state's more than 2 million illegal immigrants, while ushering in a new influx. They argue that California has no business making life easier for people who are here because they have broken the nation's immigration laws.

"There's no good reason to give driver's licenses to people who are here illegally," said state Sen. Richard Mountjoy (R-Arcadia), coauthor of Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants. "They ought to put them in a bus, drive them to the border and send them home."

The safety argument is specious, Mountjoy contends. "That's like saying, 'People are smoking dope anyhow, so let's make it not a crime.' "

Assembly passage of the proposal is indicative of how many state politicians have reversed course on the immigration question, influenced by a strong economy and the rise in Latino electoral power.

Many immigrants say the measure would liberate the working poor--especially people who have odd hours or must travel long distances to restaurants, hotels and construction sites.

There is no evidence that the current requirement has stemmed illegal immigration, experts say.

Unlicensed illegal immigrant drivers say the ban has, however, cost them time, money and legally recognized proof of identity, effectively barring them, for example, from opening bank accounts.

With only limited public transportation available, illegal immigrants say, the current law has, in essence, criminalized their daily commute. Many say that the ban has cost them $10,000 or more in lost vehicles and fines.

Dalia Pena, who cleans houses to support four daughters back in Acapulco, says that she needs a car to shuttle from job to job. Moreover, she says, the lack of formal identification has cost her jobs with employers who want to see an identification card.

"They're afraid I might steal everything and run off," she said.

The issue has struck a chord in immigrant neighborhoods, and has received extensive coverage in Spanish-language newspapers and TV.

About 10,000 people, mostly immigrants, have submitted letters or signed petitions backing the repeal, said Assemblyman Cedillo.

Juan Jose Gutierrez, head of One Stop Immigration, an East Los Angeles social service agency, calls Cedillo's bill "the most important issue in the Latino community since Proposition 187."

Under current law, all first-time applicants for driver's licenses and Department of Motor Vehicles identification cards must produce documents showing they are entitled to live in the United States. The DMV checks the documents with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Applicants also must provide Social Security numbers--which illegal immigrants cannot obtain. The Assembly bill would repeal the Social Security number requirement, as well.

Black Market in Illegal Licenses

California is one of about half a dozen states with a legal residency requirement for driver's licenses, according to Cedillo's staff. About 30 other states require Social Security numbers.

Verifying the status of would-be drivers has stressed the already overworked DMV. The agency issues more than 1 million driver's licenses and state identification cards each year.

The requirement has also spawned corruption and an illicit trade in selling licenses to illegal immigrants at a cost of $800 to $1,200, according to state officials. Nearly 200 DMV employees were fired and referred for criminal prosecution during a 1997-98 investigation centering on the practice, said Evan Nosoff, an agency spokesman.

Jose Luis Pena, the refrigerator repairman, said he once paid a DMV clerk $800 to get him a license. When Pena returned at the appointed hour, he said, the clerk was gone. He never found the employee, and lost the money.

Pena now owns a pickup truck, his fifth vehicle in recent years. He says a licensed co-worker does most of the driving. Such arrangements are common.

Since illegal immigrants lacking driver's licenses or state ID cannot register vehicles or purchase insurance, many ask friends and relatives with licenses to register cars and trucks in their names. Other vehicles go unregistered, making their owners unable to claim them after they are impounded by police.

Municipal Judge Conrad R. Aragon said violators appear daily in his East Los Angeles courtroom. Uninsured motorists face a minimum fine of $1,351 for a first offense. Many who are cited never show up for court, forcing Aragon and other judges to order their arrests.

Gov. Gray Davis, who is negotiating a middle path on Proposition 187 and other immigration issues, has yet to take a position. The bill is to be heard Tuesday before the Senate Transportation Committee, headed by Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach), who opposes the plan.

"I think my constituency likes the idea that people should be here legally to get a driver's license," Karnette said.

Also opposed are organizations that backed Proposition 187, which has been blocked in federal courts since its passage in 1994. Opponents say that illegal immigrants will use driver's licenses to obtain public services and benefits.

"It's like giving illegal aliens the equivalent of an ATM card for all our services." said Danielle Elliott, executive director of Californians for Population Stabilization, which seeks limits on immigration levels.

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved

WVCT: This is a typical illegal alien defending L.A. Times article. Jose Pena ought to be in prison. Illegal aliens are criminals by definition and should be removed from our soil. A driver's license is a breeder document. Remember Clinton's 'Motor Voter'? To entertain the whines of deportable border-hopping criminals is laughable at best. This is precisely why Sec. 133 of the 1996 Immigration and Nationality Act needs to be implemented nationwide immediately.