Published Monday, June 28, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News
Bill could aid illegal immigrants
Drivers would not have to prove legal status
BY KEN MCLAUGHLIN
Mercury News Staff Writer
Don't try telling Reinaldo, a 39-year-old day laborer who lives in San Jose, that the state of California is soft on undocumented immigrants.
Because the Honduran national is in the country illegally, Reinaldo can't get a California driver's license. Because he doesn't have a license, he can't get auto insurance.
No insurance means he risks a minimum $1,350 fine each time his car is stopped. No license means police can impound or even confiscate his vehicle. The cops have taken four of his cars in the five years he has lived in California.
But his life could soon take a turn for the better if a contentious bill repealing a requirement that driver's license applicants prove they're here legally is signed into law.
``I sure hope it passes,'' said Reinaldo, who did not give his last name for fear of deportation, as he and 15 other undocumented day laborers waited for work on Alum Rock Avenue in East San Jose. ``The current law is unjust. It makes it very difficult for us. We need our cars to go to work.''
Many Californians, fed up with illegal immigration, say they have little sympathy for Reinaldo and the more than 2 million other undocumented immigrants in the state.
Activists for anti-immigration groups are mobilizing to kill the bill, AB 1463, sponsored by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, a Democrat from Los Angeles. The measure, which narrowly cleared the Assembly earlier this month, will get its first Senate hearing July 6 in the transportation committee.
Alquist sponsored law
California is one of only a handful of states requiring driver's license applicants to prove they're in the country legally -- the mandate of a 1993 law sponsored by former state Sen. Al Alquist. Alquist, a San Jose Democrat, claimed that illegal immigrants were using driver's licenses as ``breeder documents'' to establish ``proof'' of lawful residency so they could apply for welfare, food stamps and other benefits available to legal U.S. residents.
As a result of the Alquist law, California is the only state that uses Immigration and Naturalization Service databases to check immigration status at local motor-vehicle offices, virtually eliminating the chance that applicants can pass bogus immigration documents. If the electronic checks fail, the documents are sent to the INS for verification. [WVCT Note: Florida just passed a law which denies driver's licenses to illegal aliens.]
``What the backers of the repeal want is for illegal aliens to have an easy time of it,'' said Rick Oltman of San Rafael, who in 1994 led the Northern California effort to pass Proposition 187, which sought to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants. A federal judge last year ruled that the measure was unconstitutional, but Proposition 187 proponents are appealing.
``By giving illegal aliens legal documents, you're giving them the keys to the kingdom,'' Oltman said. ``You make it harder for them to be detected -- which is the real goal of this bill. That's anti-American. That's traitorous.''
But those who back Cedillo's bill (who include Assemblywoman Elaine Alquist, the retired senator's wife) say they're just being realists.
They argue that the overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants have no intention of returning to their native countries. And since so many illegal immigrants are driving without licenses, they say, the state might as well make sure that they are road-tested, licensed and insured.
Wants `safer highways'
``This bill has nothing to do with illegal immigration,'' said Cedillo, who represents a predominantly Asian and Latino district. ``What I want to do is create safer highways.''
Although it has received little mention in the mainstream press, the bill has generated intense interest in immigrant communities across the state. Many Latinos say it's a clear sign that the ``anti-immigrant'' era of former Gov. Pete Wilson is over, and that the ``Latino-friendly'' era of Gov. Gray Davis has begun.
In the cauldron of California immigration politics, though, things are never so simple. Despite his close political ties with Cedillo, Davis, who has performed a delicate political dance over the issue of Proposition 187 lawsuits, has taken no position on the bill.
The bill passed the Assembly on a 41-36 vote, with only Democrats supporting it. Its fate in the Democratic-controlled Senate is uncertain.
Hilda Solis Rant
Cedillo's measure is similar to an earlier version of a bill by Sen. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte. But at a Senate Transportation Committee in April, Solis agreed to amend her bill, SB 371.
Under her measure, which cleared the Senate, the Department of Motor Vehicles would still do the electronic checks. But the secondary Immigration and Naturalization Service verification would occur only if the DMV had reason to believe submitted documents were fraudulent.
But Cedillo isn't expected to be so accommodating. He and other critics of the Alquist law say it has driven illegal immigrants further underground and forced tens of thousands to get behind steering wheels without training or insurance.
``Is it really a good idea to make their lives miserable at the expense of endangering everybody's life?'' asked Angie Wei of the California Immigrant Welfare Collaborative.
Immigrant-rights advocates say the law has also made it nearly impossible for undocumented immigrants to open bank accounts or cash checks, making them easy prey for muggers.
``My focus is on working people,'' Cedillo said, adding that most undocumented immigrants ``want to be law-abiding. They simply want to get a license and comply with California law.''
But supporters of the Alquist law contend that giving illegal immigrants legal documents is perverse.
``It might be taking the concept of friendliness toward immigrants a little too far,'' said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., which favors lower immigration levels. ``Enforcing the law doesn't mean that you're anti-immigrant.''
Since March 1, 1994, new applicants for licenses and state ID cards have been asked to present one of two dozen documents -- from passports to birth certificates to work-authorization cards -- to prove they're in the country legally.
When the law took effect, the DMV initially saw license applications drop by 3 percent. ID-card applications dropped by a startling 28 percent. Supporters of the Alquist law say the figures are proof that fraud had been widespread.
In the beginning, department officials say, DMV workers were routinely offered bribes to accept suspicious documents. When field offices routinely began photocopying documents, many would-be applicants fled.
DMV officials say that for most people, verifying legal presence is a simple procedure. But ``a small percentage do get snagged'' in INS red tape, causing months of delays in getting a permanent license, said DMV spokesman Evan Nossoff.
The Teamsters and other labor groups have backed the movement to repeal the law, as have numerous Asian and Latino ethnic organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union. So have Japanese business groups, which have complained to legislators about delays in getting licenses.
Barry Broad, a Sacramento lobbyist for the Teamsters, said the Alquist law has Orwellian overtones, turning the California license into an ``identity card.''
``Besides, I just hate all the unstated things surrounding this issue,'' he said. ``We want to beat up on illegal immigrants, but many industries fundamentally depend on them, reaping the profits off their labor. California agriculture would collapse without the exploitation of these people.''
Still, Senate passage of Cedillo's bill is anything but assured.
Sen. Betty Karnette, who chairs the transportation committee, said she didn't want to make any predictions. But she said she would never vote for the bill unless it's substantially amended.
Karnette, a moderate Democrat from Long Beach, said she voted against Proposition 187 because she opposed kicking kids out of school and denying people health care.
``The people in my district, though, don't think illegals should get driver's licenses,'' she said. But, Karnette conceded, they also want them to have insurance.
``I guess,'' she said with a laugh, ``they want people who are illegal to ride the bus.'' *
Contact Ken McLaughlin at kmclaughlinsjmercury.com or (408) 920-5552.
* - WVCT Comment: No, Ms. Karnette. Most Americans want them deported.