On Sept. 10 of last year, The Californian newspaper published a story on AB 60, Assemblymember Gil Cedillo's proposed bill that would give immigrants who have applied for U.S. citizenship the ability to obtain a driver's license. Since 1993, driver's license applicants have been required to provide a Social Security number, effectively blocking non-citizens from getting a license. Since the process of becoming a legal resident can take a number of years, leaving a large group of immigrants in limbo, AB 60 would allow a driver's license applicant to submit a federal tax ID number in lieu of a Social Security number.
It was Cedillo's second shot at this sort of bill. His first try—AB 1463, which would have required only an INS “receipt” that an individual had petitioned for lawful immigration status—was vetoed in 1999. However, AB 60 and its required proof of employment were more palatable for legislators, and as of Sept. 10, 2001 the bill had made it safely through the state Assembly and the Senate Transportation and Appropriations Committees. It had only two steps left to go-a full Senate vote and then Gov. Gray Davis' desk for final approval.
But, as the story goes, the next day changed all that.
Although AB 60 was passed by the Senate on Sept. 14, 2001, Gov. Davis put it on hold since its passage would have, understandably, been met with a considerable amount of post-Sept. 11 resistance spawned by the practical reality that a driver's license is what gets you, among other places, on an airplane.
In the interim, Cedillo took what he thought were necessary steps to make the bill “safer.” He added a companion bill, AB 1206, which would require all applicants to submit fingerprints to be used for a federal background check.
AB 60 is back on Davis' desk, and he has said that while he supports AB 60, the bill's a no-go without AB 1206.
Cedillo's first bill, AB 1463, was embraced by the immigrant community, said Brother Ed Dunn of the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights. AB 60, he added, was a step down from what they wanted, but still a positive step, giving California's nearly 1 million legal immigrants the right to drive. But AB 1206, activists argue, which would allow unfettered sharing of information between the DMV, INS and the Department of Justice, raises concerns about privacy issues and whether a state agency has the right to get involved in federal immigration policy.
“Cedillo had a really good bill in the beginning,” Dunn said. “Twice the Legislature passed it. If the Governor wants to do a security bill, he ought to craft one and we'll debate it.”
The added security measure, Dunn said, “is not what the bill's supposed to be. The original bill is meant to give equity to immigrants who are working hard, playing by the rules and contributing to their community. There should be nothing else in the bill but that.”
The argument that AB 60's partner bill will quash potential terrorist activity just doesn't fly with immigrants' rights advocates. There is, however, a strong push from a number of public-interest groups and media organizations for Davis to veto both bills arguing that AB 1206 isn't strong enough.
The people AB 60 would help, argued Dunn, “are folks of good faith who have already made their application [for legal status] and through no fault of their own, instead of taking three or five years it's taking seven, eight or 10 years for them to get their residency.”
Gilberto Rodriguez, who lives in rural Jamul, 20 miles outside the city of San Diego, where there's no regular public transportation, said lack of a driver's license hinders a person's ability to fulfill basic needs, such as grocery shopping and going to school. For Jamul's residents to get to the nearest shopping center, “it's at least 17 miles. There's no way they can walk; there's no way they can take bicycles,” Rodriguez said.
Some Jamul residents, he said, are forced to break the law. “If they don't have a driver's license, they don't care-they have to go places; they have to take their kids to school-in some cases, the school bus driver doesn't go all the way to the ranch.”
Rodriguez said he was particularly concerned with a young Jamul resident who bypassed the chance to go to college because he feared that commuting without a license would leave him vulnerable to legal trouble-if stopped by police, an unlicensed driver's car could be impounded.
Lourdes Sanchez, who works with youth groups, sees the 16- to 18-year-old population as the most vulnerable to restrictions placed on undocumented immigrants. “What this group needs is stability, not additional barriers,” she said.
“They're growing up, they're becoming adults and even though they are dedicated to working, there are these obstacles. Some of them are driving without a driver's license and sometimes they are getting a fake license.
“I believe in security,” she said, “but I don't see these people as the ones who are going to do something against us.”
Sanchez cited AB 540, last year's bill that allows undocumented immigrants the right to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. It's a bill that gives young people a leg up. A less restrictive driver's license bill, she said, would do the same. “What we want to promote is good citizens.”
The Little Hoover Commission, an independent bipartisan state agency that provides analysis of public policy, recently issued a report to lawmakers arguing the necessity of assisting California's 8.6 million immigrants, regardless of legal status, in becoming more self sufficient.
“Existing public programs,” the report states, “are not aligned to effectively help newcomers become self-reliant and responsible community members.”
By essentially ignoring the challenge of a large immigrant population, “the state will ultimately increase public costs and delay the enormous benefits that immigrants can bring to individuals and communities,” said Commission Chairman Michael Alpert.
Norma Chavez, who has worked with the California Immigrant Welfare Collaborative on getting AB 60 passed, echoes the issues brought up by the commission's report.
“I don't think that immigration status should be at all linked to whether or not you can get a driver's license,” she said.
“The California economy,” Chavez continued, “especially the San Diego economy, relies on [immigrant] labor and so people are going to be on the roads whether or not they are allowed to have a driver's license.”
Chavez highlighted what's perhaps activists' strongest argument for opening up license restrictions: public safety in the most practical sense. “When you have a policy that creates or puts additional barriers on [obtaining a license] it just makes our roads unsafe. It's more people who are on the roads without having to go through the appropriate driver's testing. You're unable to get insurance, so that puts a hardship on everyone else who does have a driver's license.”