California lawmakers approve measure to allow driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants

09/13/2013 12:00 AM

09/20/2013 12:12 PM

In the waning hours of the 2013 legislative session, the Assembly on Thursday sent Gov. Jerry Brown a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses.

The surprise 55-19 vote moved California a signature away from putting into law a measure that immigrant advocates have sought fruitlessly for years, with past attempts thwarted by legislative vote and gubernatorial veto.

“This is a moment, members,” sponsor Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, said in closing remarks on the Assembly floor, “that years from now you’re going to look back on.”

In a statement released shortly after the vote, Brown signaled he will sign the bill.

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

Earlier Thursday, the state Senate resuscitated the left-for-dead bill on a 28-8 vote and returned it to the Assembly, marking an apparent reversal: Alejo had said Wednesday that he would defer action on the measure until January.

But amid a late push from proponents – including members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus and Gil Cedillo, a Los Angeles City Council member and former state lawmaker who perennially carried bills to offer undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses – legislators pushed Assembly Bill 60 across the finish line.

By extending licenses to undocumented immigrants, Alejo said, California would open a legal umbrella for everyone on the road to prevent situations in which immigrants face arrest, heavy fines and car impoundment when they are pulled over.

Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, said late amendments to the bill included a recognizable feature on the front and back of the license to satisfy federal requirements – as well as various provisions to guard against discrimination. Some supporters said it was unfortunate that the licenses would need special markings, but said the tradeoff was worth it.

A staff analysis of the bill suggested that undocumented immigrants could apply for a driver’s license as long as they could provide some form of identification approved by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“This measure will ensure that all drivers on California highways are properly trained, properly licensed and properly insured,” de León said, adding that 10 other states allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. “We are actually quite behind.”

He said the measure would make California roads safer, improve national security and allow immigrants to fully contribute to the state economy.

Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, also said it was important that drivers are trained and insured.

“Not only is it the right thing to do, but our economy will benefit,” he said.

Some critics of the bill have argued that issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants would not make them safer drivers and would not guarantee that they get insurance. Others continued to contend that distinguishing marks on driver’s licenses unfairly single out people and could help spur deportations.

While most Republican senators voted against the measure, none spoke on the floor.

In the Assembly, opponents said privacy protections embedded in the bill -- including language prohibiting employment and housing discrimination based on the new licenses -- represented a step too far.

"As an employer, if they produce this driver's license what am I supposed to do?" asked Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills.

Since 2000, Democratic lawmakers have been trying to restore the ability of undocumented immigrants to drive legally after it was outlawed in 1993.

In 2003, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed a driver’s license bill, but it was repealed before it could take effect after Davis was ousted by recall. Several attempts cleared the Legislature but were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Proponents said the current measure would go far to helping 2 million unlicensed drivers in California, many of whom need transportation to and from work.

Cedillo said undocumented immigrants have continued to drive because they must.

“We have the historic opportunity to end this situation by providing immigrants with legal and safe means to get to work, take their kids to school, and to visit places of worship,” he said.

In other developments, lawmakers:

• Overwhelmingly recommended naming a stretch of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

The nonbinding resolution to rebrand the western span of the bridge, which does not require the governor’s signature, faced stern opposition from three former San Francisco supervisors. They noted it violated several legislative rules, among them that the subject must be deceased.

Willie Brown, once known as the “Ayatollah of the Assembly,” is very much alive.

Critics also objected because the lawmaker carrying the resolution, Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton, does not represent the district housing the facility in question.

Still, Hall’s proposal received strong support from the Legislature. The Senate passed the resolution 26-7 Thursday after the Assembly voted 68-0.

The resolution touted Willie Brown’s contributions to area transportation, affordable housing and higher education, saying he “is widely regarded as one of the most influential politicians of the late 20th century, and has been at the center of California politics, government and civic life for an astonishing four decades.”

Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, compared Willie Brown to the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Ervin “Magic” Johnson.

“Every time you cross that bridge going from Oakland or to San Francisco, either way, and you look at a little sign that will say ‘Willie L. Brown Jr.,’ I hope that you’ll think about a kid who came here with nothing but a pillowcase with stuff in it,” Wright said.

“He shined shoes. He put himself through college with no money. He put himself through law school with much less than that. (He) became an Assembly member in a district where the African American population was less than 10 percent. (He) became mayor of a town where the African American population was about 10 percent. Every place Willie went he made it better.”

Whether the governor and his administration will follow the Legislature’s recommendation is a separate question. Earlier in the week, he said through a spokesman that he opposed renaming the bridge for Willie Brown because “the iconic Bay Bridge should keep the name it has had for nearly 77 years, a name that lives in the hearts and minds of all Californians.”

The governor buoyed the effort to raise California’s minimum wage by announcing on Wednesday that he would support Assembly Bill 10, which would raise the wage from the current $8 an hour to $10 an hour by 2016. After a debate in which supporters frequently invoked a widening national gulf between rich and poor, the Assembly approved the bill on a 51-25 vote.

• Shelved a bill that sought to revoke the Boy Scouts of America’s tax-exempt status because of the organization’s long-held policy not to permit the participation of openly gay adults.

The measure, Senate Bill 323 by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, called for stripping the nonprofit status of youth groups that discriminate against participants on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identification.

The bill had moved through the Legislature even as the Boy Scouts lifted the ban on gay youth participation.

• Approved a bill that converts the state’s job application policy regarding felony conviction questions into a law that applies to local government agencies.

Assembly Bill 218, authored by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, now goes to Brown for his signature or veto. The bill is part of a growing movement called “ban the box” that seeks to eliminate the check-box criminal background question commonly found on sector-job applications.

• Sent a bill to the governor that would allow in-home nannies and caregivers to receive overtime pay for working more than nine hours a day or 45 hours a week.

A watered-down version of San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s so-called “Domestic Worker Bill of Rights” cleared its final legislative hurdle Thursday following a 52-25 vote along party lines in the Assembly.

Recent amendments to Assembly Bill 241 narrowed the bill to exclude meal and rest-break provisions, exempted occasional babysitters from overtime requirements, called for a review commission to evaluate the bill’s impact and added a three-year sunset provision.

• Approved a union-backed teacher discipline bill despite concerns from school districts, the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators that it falls short of improving the current process.

Democratic Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan of Alamo said the legislation she authored – Assembly Bill 375 – will streamline due process and save schools time and money.

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