In the face of certain veto from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state Legislature voted Friday to let an estimated 2 million illegal immigrant adults apply for California driver’s licenses.
Schwarzenegger immediately renewed his pledge to veto the bill, calling it national security issue.
“The way it was passed it has no distinguishing characteristic and the governor has been consistent, saying the No. 1 issue we have to worry about is national security,” said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson.
The Senate’s bare majority 21-14 vote and a 42-35 vote in the Assembly comes nine months after both voted to repeal a similar law signed by Gov. Gray Davis in the face of polls showing widespread opposition, just weeks before Davis’ recall from office last fall.
Schwarzenegger, who campaigned last year against licenses for illegal immigrants and then pushed lawmakers to repeal the law during his first weeks in office, vowed repeatedly to reject any license legislation that doesn’t identify immigrant drivers as different from citizens.
Lawmakers used a parliamentary maneuver Friday to vote on the bill without all the usual committee hearings, and rushed it to Senate and Assembly floors just hours before they adjourned a two-year session.
“We will strengthen highway safety. We will make sure that every motorist is tested, licensed and insured,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles.
All year Cedillo has prodded lawmakers to “do what is right even if it’s not popular” and pass a bill before adjourning their two-year session. He has endorsements from police chiefs such as William Bratton of Los Angeles, numerous cities including Santa Monica and Pomona and 14 newspapers including The Sacramento Bee, San Bernardino Sun and Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
“He has earned public support, earned editorial support and earned public safety support,” said Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. “This bill is worthy of our support.”
But opponents came within one vote of defeating the measure in the Senate and supporters had just a single vote to spare in the Assembly.
“This will render as useless the driver’s licenses held by millions of Californians that are proof of legal residency,” said Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Northridge.
McClintock said the bill undermines rights of legal immigrants and called the safety argument a cover to “place valid state identification documents in the hands of illegal immigrants.”
“The people of the state of California said they didn’t want this,” said Assemblyman Jay La Suer, R-La Mesa. “Tonight the people of California are going to see your vote to see who listens.”
Cedillo said Friday that talks with the governor’s office had proved fruitless, but vowed nonetheless to send Schwarzenegger a bill without what he labeled a “discriminatory mark.”
The bill requires applicants who cannot prove legal residency in California to be fingerprinted, undergo background checks and get adult sponsors. Applicants would pay $141 for a license to cover the extra costs of the security checks. They would also have to provide a federal taxpayer identification card or an identification card from their consulates. The bill does not apply to commercial licenses.
The Legislature’s action could mark four straight years that lawmakers have passed the bill only to see it undone. Cedillo withdrew a similar bill from the governor’s desk in 2001 in the aftermath of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saw it vetoed by Davis in 2002 over security concerns and then approved last year only to be repealed.
California allowed illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses for 65 years until 1993 when lawmakers voted to change the law. Nationally, nearly 40 states and the District of Columbia require drivers to prove their legal residency before getting licensed, according to the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center. But most of California’s neighbors, including Oregon, Washington, Utah and Hawaii, don’t have the requirement.
Supporters of the license law say it will make streets and highways safer, spurring more illegal immigrants to take the state driver’s test and buy car insurance. But opponents have cast it as a reward for people living in the U.S. illegally.
When lawmakers repealed the law last year, Schwarzenegger promised he would negotiate for a new law that offered stronger security measures while offering illegal immigrants rights to licenses. But months of talks stalled on the issue of an identifying mark that would tell police officers and others that the license holder was not living legally in the U.S.
Cedillo said the bill provides the security measures Schwarzenegger wanted when he demanded a repeal last year.
“This is what Governor Schwarzenegger was concerned about. We’ve done that. We’ve kept our promises. We’ve kept our word,” he said. “Let’s put it on the governor’s desk and move California forward.
Immigration rights groups have criticized Schwarzenegger’s insistence on an identifier as an invitation to abuse and discrimination.