How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Immigrant driver's license bill could become law in California

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California is closer than it has been in years to letting unauthorized immigrants have driver's licenses, after a bill that appeared dead Thursday morning was revived and ultimately approved by both legislative houses the same night.

The Sacramento Bee reported that the state Assembly voted 55-19 to approve a bill known as AB 60 and send it to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk for approval. The bill would allow immigrants to use a federal individual taxpayer identification number or other approved identification to apply for a driver's license.

After the vote Thursday night, Brown issued a statement indicating he'll approve:

“This bill will enable millions of people to get to work safely and legally. Hopefully, it will send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due.”

The bill moved from shelf to passage quickly: Late Wednesday, bill sponsor Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) had said he would hold the bill until January over critics' concerns as to how the licenses would be visually distinguishable from ordinary licenses.

But by Thursday afternoon, several Latino Democrats in the Senate were pressing for passage. In a statement, Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) said the bill was "not perfect but it moves our state in the right direction," with the alternative being "a status quo system that continues to penalize hardworking families with tickets, court fees and car impoundments."

Los Angeles City Councilman and ex-Assemblyman Gil Cedillo also joined in, urging Alejo in a statement Thursday evening to "stay the course" as the bill cleared the Senate and then moved to the Assembly for its successful vote.

Cedillo, who left state office last year, spent years pushing similar bills. Some came close to becoming law but never quite made it. 

If Brown signs AB 60 as he suggests, it will be the first time in decades that unauthorized immigrants in California can obtain driver's licenses. In 1993, a measure signed into law by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson required driver's license applicants to provide a Social Security number and proof that their presence in the state was "authorized under federal law," which essentially blocked immigrants without legal status from obtaining them.

Cedillo began proposing bills to restore their access soon after. One was ultimately signed by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, but after Davis was recalled and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected, the latter repealed it. Schwarzenegger later vetoed another of Cedillo's license proposals.

Cedillo made other attempts, but none got any further until last year, when Brown signed a limited license bill sponsored by Cedillo ensuring that young immigrants who win temporary legal status under deferred action may obtain licenses. The law kicked in last Jan. 1, but was viewed by some critics as a token since it covers relatively few people.

AB 60 would allow a much larger number of unauthorized immigrants to drive legally in California, home to an estimated 2.6 million people who lack legal immigration status. A Field Poll earlier this year suggested that public attitudes toward granting these immigrants driver's licenses have softened. Some law enforcement officials have also backed the idea, saying it would cut down on unlicensed drivers and promote highway safety.

But it's still a highly controversial one. "The issuance of state ID cards and driver’s licenses to illegal aliens undermines our safety," reads a general statement on driver's license rules posted by Numbers USA, a group that advocates restricting immigration.

Brown has until Oct. 13 to sign the legislation.

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