Two bills important to Latino immigrant groups are set to advance in the state Legislature this week, even though some lawmakers expect Gov. Gray Davis to ultimately veto the measures.
One of the bills, sponsored by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), calls for the state to allow noncitizens to obtain driver's licenses, while the other, backed by Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles), would allow some immigrants to be eligible for in-state college tuition.
The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to hear testimony on the Firebaugh bill on Monday, and the committee could act on Cedillo's measure as early as Friday.
"California should take the lead in the whole discussion of the right of immigrant workers in this country," Cedillo said. "We have to step back and take a look at what makes sense. What we need is a stabilized work force. What we need is integration."
But Davis, who is known for vetoing scores of bills each year, rejected similar measures last year. Although he apparently is open to considering Firebaugh's tuition bill this time around, he still has misgivings about the driver's license bill because he is worried it would become "an invitation to fraud."
"The governor's main concern is that he wants to make sure that any legislation that comes before him won't have the effect of weakening our laws on identity theft and fraud," said Roger Salazar, a Davis spokesman.
Under Cedillo's plan, immigrants who are officially seeking legal residency could apply for a California driver's license. The proposed law, AB 60, would reverse a 1994 provision that required all drivers to produce a Social Security number and proof of residency.
Proponents of the 1994 restriction believed that by denying illegal immigrants a driver's license, it would push some of them home. But, Cedillo argues, the law has instead sent thousands of unlicensed, uninsured and untested drivers onto California's roads and freeways. The bill is being supported by a coalition of car insurance companies as well as immigrant rights groups.
In vetoing a bill last year that was nearly identical to this one by Cedillo, Davis told legislators it was flawed because it would burden the Department of Motor Vehicles with the task of confirming the immigration status and identity of driver's license applicants. He also noted that Arizona, Florida, New Mexico and Texas all require that Social Security numbers be provided to their DMVs. "California should not embrace a weaker standard than those imposed by other Southern border states," Davis wrote in last year's veto message.
Since AB 60 is almost identical to the bill the governor rejected last year, legislators expect Cedillo's latest effort will meet the same fate. If that's the case, Cedillo said, he will introduce the bill again next year.
As for the proposed in-state tuition law, AB 540, Firebaugh is hoping to reach a compromise deal with Davis to ensure that his legislation finally makes it through the process.
Under Firebaugh's plan, undocumented students would be allowed to pay in-state tuition at California's public universities and colleges, provided they attend California high schools for three years and are actively seeking legalization of their immigrant status. Currently, they must pay the higher tuition that is charged to students who come from other states.
Davis squashed Firebaugh's effort last year because he was concerned that it violated a federal law that precludes noncitizens from receiving post-secondary education benefits that are not available to all U.S. citizens.
"We've made some changes and we are continuing to talk to the governor," Firebaugh said.
The assemblyman said he is pushing the bill because many bright, young immigrants at high schools throughout the state are being denied access to a college education because they cannot afford to pay the higher tuition.
"These kids are not sojourners or kids who are passing through," Firebaugh said. "They will live out their lives in California. It would seem to me that a wise society would allow these kids the ability to pursue a higher education so they can better succeed."
Firebaugh hopes Mexican President Vicente Fox also will be instrumental in seeking the bill's passage.
In March, Fox visited the state Capitol, where he made a speech challenging Davis to allow Mexicans who are living in California and seeking legal residency to have access to the state's college system at in-state tuition rates.
"It's part of facing the reality that we live in a state that prospers in large part because of immigrants," Firebaugh said.