On Ethnicity, We're Rednecks One Day, Trailblazers the Next

While Anaheim officials were debating this week whether to allow a Mexican supermarket to do business in their fair city, the governor indicated he would sign a bill allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.

There is not a state in the union, I assure you, half as interesting as California.

Anaheim's fearless leaders had thrice stood in the way of Gigante's attempt to open for business, claiming at one point that the store was too Latino for Anaheim Plaza, an outdoor mall near Disneyland.

It was a curious argument, considering that the Anaheim neighborhood is 60% Latino. In my mind's eye, I played with the idea of a city where illegal immigrants could legally drive cars to their hearts' content, but couldn't shop at a Gigante because it was too ethnic.

Anaheim's backwater rubes were spared further embarrassment Wednesday when the City Council, under community pressure, finally gave the OK to Gigante.

There is no connection between the Gigante and driver's license stories, except that they speak to California's continued growing pains and identity crisis. On the issue of ethnicity, we can be rednecks one day and trailblazers the next.

Gov. Gray Davis said he'll probably sign the driver's license bill if it lands in front of him, meaning that roughly 200,000 illegal immigrants would be allowed to drive.

But Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) isn't certain his bill--futzed with since 1999 and then pulled back after Sept. 11--will make it into Davis' hands. Naysayers on the right think the licensing of illegals is nuts, and those on the left think required background checks are fascist.

At times like this, you can almost respect Davis for being such a spineless centrist.

A lot of people, judging by my mail, believe the very idea of the bill is proof that California has finally gone insane.

"If someone is here illegally, I don't think they should be allowed to do anything, frankly," said Diana Hull of Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), which is based in Santa Barbara. "The way we're so out in the open about this illegality is shocking."

The state is already overpopulated, Hull says. To begin legitimizing everyone who sneaked in will only encourage more of the same.

She's probably right. But it's more complicated than that.

People are here illegally because the unspoken federal policy is to allow them to be here. It's the lie we're all in on.

Businesses exploit cheap labor in the fields and hotels and restaurants, and so do homeowners who don't ask questions of the gardener or housekeeper who work like the devil for rock-bottom wages.

"You've got a woman in Pico-Union who could drive to work at a Beverly Hills hotel in 20 minutes, but the bus takes her three hours. That's who this bill is for," says Cedillo.

Those who've worked the hardest are already driving around without licenses or insurance, so if there's a crackup on the highway, you and I are going to pay. Licensing people who pass a background check, and prove they've worked in the state for 15 months, seems fair to me.

"The issue is to make sure that these are not the terrorists of the world, and not people with criminal histories either here or in their country of origin," says L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, who's on an advisory committee that persuaded Gov. Davis to insist on the background check.

"These are people who came here illegally, but are otherwise honest, hard-working, decent people who want to be part of the American dream."

I say we should give them more than a driver's license. We should quit the charade and legalize them altogether.

Just yell olly olly oxen free and say everyone who's in is in.

And then we should have an honest conversation on population growth and immigration.

The California environment is being destroyed, traffic is insane, there's a water shortage, a housing crisis, the health-care system is overwhelmed, and our schools are so depressed, even recent improvements still leave them six credits short of mediocre.

In 39 years, the state population is expected to double, and every one of those problems will explode. I've been called a dope and a bigot for suggesting it, but Los Angeles and the rest of the state ought to be asking how big is too big.

Baca told me that on a recent trip to China, cops told him they'll lose their jobs if they have more than one child.

I don't know if we want to go that far, but I did the math and Gov. Davis has enough money in his campaign kitty to send a three-pack of condoms to every adult in California.

Davis and the state congressional delegation should demand that if the federal government isn't going to better develop the economies of border nations or enforce its own immigration laws, and 40% of all immigrants are going to continue settling in California, the feds ought to start paying more of the bills.

Especially if Presidente Bush, with one eye on the next election, keeps posing as an amigo.

Baca says 25% of his jail population is made up of illegals, for an annual cost of $90 million. Court costs run another $160 million. Meanwhile, the financially strapped county is going Third World in health care, shutting clinics and cutting off immunization for tens of thousands of children.

Gil Cedillo insists California's problems are not a function of too many people, but of poor leadership.

I say it's a combination of the two.

And if we don't do something about both, driver's licenses or no, we'll all be stuck in traffic on the way to Gigante.

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Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes.com

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