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Bill would let illegal immigrants get licenses to drive

By Daniela Mohor Daily Planet staff
Friday August 03, 2001

When a San Francisco police officer stopped him in his car eight months ago, Pablo, a 27-year-old Berkeley day laborer from Honduras, knew what to expect. It was the fifth time this had happened to him since he moved to the United States in 1996. 

“Me quitaron el carro (they took my car),” he said. “They didn’t even let me take what I had left inside it.”  

That day, Pablo also spent seven hours in jail and was fined.  

The reason? His work permit was still being processed, and although illegal immigrants like Pablo are not permitted to have a California driver’s license, he was behind the wheel. 

But things could change. A number of legislators, including Asemblymember Dion Aroner, D-Berkeley, are supporting a bill that would allow immigrants to get a driver’s license while waiting for legal documentation. Introduced in December 2000 by assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, AB 60 passed the state Senate Transportation Committee on a 10-2 vote July 10 and should reach the Senate floor later this month. 

“Assemblyman Cedillo feels that as a matter of public safety, all drivers should get an opportunity to get a driver’s license,” said David Galaviz, Cedillo’s legislative director. “The Department of Motor Vehicle is not an immigration office. It shouldn’t be checking people’s immigration status.” 

Under the current law, individuals applying for a driver’s license must submit their Social Security numbers to prove that they are legally on U.S. soil. The bill would delete this requirement and only ask immigrants to present proof that they are in the process of getting legal status. According to Cedillo’s office, about a million immigrants in the state could benefit from the proposed legislation. 

Labor leaders across California also support the bill. They believe it will rectify laws that are unfair to immigrants, while increasing safety on streets and highways.  

“The prohibition is simply vindictive; it’s to make (immigrants’) life more difficult,” said Carol Zabin, chair of the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley. “It’s not a deterrent. So if they are here because of the economic reality of their country, to just send them underground and have them do things that are not safe for them or the rest of us is absurd.” 

To the many illegal immigrants who work as day laborers, having a car can be critical to getting a job. That’s why so many of them drive illegally, including employers’ vehicles. 

Since the police took his car, Pablo said he has about 30 percent fewer job opportunities. 

“For us a car is not a luxury, it’s a need,” he said. “I’ve been offered jobs in areas with no public transportation that I couldn’t take because I don’t have a car.”  

Another advantage of the bill, Pablo said, is that it would allow some illegal immigrants to have some kind of U.S. identification. 

“The bill is very important, because you are well identified, and you can go to work with the confidence that you won’t have any problems,” he said. 

A similar bill was vetoed by Governor Gray Davis in 2000, but Cedillo’s office is currently trying to reach an agreement with the governor to make sure he signs the legislation. 

“We want the governor’s office to come up with a proposal on what can be done to address this issue,” said Galaviz. 

The governor’s office was unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon. 

Pablo said authorities forget that many illegal immigrants would like to comply with California law. But the system doesn’t allow it. Now that he has a work permit, Pablo said he is still unable to get a driver’s license because he owes about $6,000 in fines for driving illegally. He can’t afford to pay them and doesn’t want to risk a new arrest. 

“I don’t like jail. That’s why I haven’t bought another car,” he said. “I want to do everything legally. I still carry this fear inside. It’s hard.”