Many Illegal Drivers Doubted License Law

Times Staff Writers

With or without a license, Florentina Torres says, she will keep driving.

From her home in Huntington Park to her daughter's school in Long Beach to her housekeeping job in West Adams, Torres has driven on Southern California roads for 10 years without a license.

The 40-year-old Mexico native said that hopes of driving legally were short-lived, as state legislators prepared to repeal a law that would have granted driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

"I go out on the street, and it's always with fear," Torres said. "But it's how I get to work."

As a bill to repeal the license law makes its way through the Assembly, having already passed the Senate, Torres said she never truly believed the measure would be enacted. That, she said, was especially clear to her after Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor. Former Gov. Gray Davis had signed the license bill into law at the height of the campaign to recall him, and his defeat seemed to signal a similar fate for the law, she said.

Ismael Roman, 34, said that after the election, he also doubted the prospect of driving legally.

"That they would give us licenses? Since Schwarzenegger came on, that was never going to happen."

Fernando Rodriguez, a 23-year-old fruit seller in downtown Los Angeles, was similarly resigned about the law's fate. "I was hoping, but, oh well," he said with a shrug. "One [governor] said yes, and one said no."

Torres and others said they viewed the Legislature's moves as frustrating. Though the state benefits from the labor and industry of undocumented workers, they said, it refuses to let them drive legally.

Bakersfield waitress Martha Hernandez, 30, said that in the last year she has lost a car to authorities and just last week had to pay a $1,000 court fine, both for driving without a license.

"I work, I go to school, I am a single mother, I pay for health insurance, I pay taxes, I don't want nothing from the government. I just need a license to go from here to there," Hernandez said. "It's sad."

Reaction among some who have demanded the law's repeal was mixed Tuesday. Though some celebrated, others said they will continue efforts for a statewide referendum to repeal the law -- just in case.

"If you want to be made a fool of, trust the Legislature," said Richard Mountjoy, immediate past president of the conservative California Republican Assembly, the group that is petitioning for the referendum. "Anything can still happen."

Mountjoy and other opponents of the law insist that licensing illegal immigrants would, in an age of recurring terrorism alerts, compromise national security and complicate the federal government's ability to enforce immigration laws.

Other groups that called for the law's repeal said they were confident that the Legislature would kill it.

"This is a good day," said William S. Mount, a lawyer for the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, which recently filed suit against the law. "We are naturally very pleased. It's hasta la vista to our lawsuit though. Now the point is moot."

Some Latino labor and political leaders have voiced anger toward the governor and the Senate but have yet to agree on a way to respond.

Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican American Political Assn., has called for a general strike among Latinos and immigrant workers on Dec. 12. He and his supporters are urging Latinos and immigrants to stay away from work, not send children to schools and not shop anywhere.

Support for such a strike is mixed, particularly because Schwarzenegger has suggested he would consider a new version of the driver's license measure if it was tied to insurance and background checks.

"We haven't had time to discuss it," said Anjelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

"We want a dialogue with the governor. He's basically saying, 'I want a political victory right now, and then I will work on something....' What we're saying is, we're going to hold you accountable."

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