A little more than a week after angry Californians tossed out their sitting governor, a grass-roots campaign is gaining ground in a push to reverse a new law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
A group of Republicans who were active in the recall effort said they had collected nearly 40,000 signatures in the two weeks since they began circulating petitions for the proposed ballot initiative. If volunteers can gather 375,000 signatures of registered voters by Dec. 7, the law will be suspended and voters will decide its fate in the March election.
The battle over driver’s licenses began with the Proposition 187 movement of 1993. That year, amid a number of bills to combat illegal immigration, the Legislature for the first time required proof of legal status before an applicant could obtain a California driver’s license. Gov. Gray Davis’ signature on Senate Bill 60 reversed that law in September.
The initiative drive started as a backlash against Davis’ signing of the license bill. But since the recall, the rhetoric has shifted toward a referendum on competing views of California: one that tolerates illegal immigrants and one that rejects them.
More than 30,000 people have registered on the “Save Our License” Web site and requested petitions, according to Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, the conservative Republican group that launched the initiative drive.
The same AM radio talk show hosts who pushed the recall have taken up the cause, hoping to tap some of the same voter anger that drove Davis from office, They have cast the new law as a peril to national security, pointing out that the terrorists who hijacked jetliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, used driver’s licenses as identification to board the aircraft.
The petition drive has a potentially large audience. A Times poll taken two weeks before the Oct. 7 recall election found that 63% of likely voters in California disapproved of the new law.
Supporters of the law, which could apply to as many as 2 million people, argue that it will increase highway safety by requiring illegal immigrants -- who, they argue, are driving anyway -- to pass driving tests and buy insurance.
Data to support either the petitioners’ national security argument or the highway safety rationale are elusive, according to interviews, records from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, the California Highway Patrol and independent studies.
State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who wrote SB 60, believes he can persuade Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger to reverse his opposition to the law and denounce the initiative.
During the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger accused Davis of signing the bill to curry favor with voters and said he would work to overturn the measure.
Cedillo plans to go the Legislature in January, when the law is to take effect, to add additional security amendments.
But petitioners are not willing to wait that long.
On Thursday, at a golf course restaurant in Costa Mesa, 30 Republican activists who helped get the governor’s recall on the ballot readied themselves for the driver’s license battle. Urging them on were Ron Prince and Barbara Coe, coauthors of Proposition 187, the successful ballot initiative that would have barred illegal immigrants from public schools, clinics and other services. It was never enforced and eventually was overturned in the courts.
The driver’s license and the matricula consular (an ID card issued by the Mexican Consulate) “are nothing but free passes for terrorists, folks,” Coe said. “They’re chuckling. Thirty bucks and they’re home free.”
That argument has gained traction nationwide. Federal officials have raised concerns about the security of the driver’s license as identification, and state motor vehicle departments have wrestled with their licensing requirements since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, three bills have been introduced in Congress to discourage states from issuing government identification to illegal immigrants. One bill would cut federal highway funds to states that issue driver’s licenses to the undocumented.
“One of the best ways to blend in is to get a driver’s license -- you’re rarely questioned after that,” said Linda Lewis, president of the American Assn. of Motor Vehicle Administrators.
But relying on the DMV to protect against terrorism is a dubious prospect at best, Cedillo argued. Terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber were U.S. citizens, he pointed out. Although the Sept. 11 hijackers had valid driver’s licenses, he added, they also were known to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which did not act on the information. None had entered the country illegally.
“We’ve had many horrific acts of terrorism in the U.S. before 9/11 that had nothing to do with driver’s licenses,” Cedillo said. “But we never said let’s take away the licenses of these people, because we didn’t think it was the license that facilitated their acts.”
For most of the past decade, in fact, the state’s record-checking system had wide gaps that allowed people to obtain licenses fraudulently. “There are tens of thousands of people who gave false Social Security numbers before 2000 and got licenses,” said Steven Gourley, director of the California DMV. “They can’t renew their licenses without getting a valid number, but we can’t go back and check.”
Since 1994, applicants for California driver’s licenses have been required to show proof of “legal presence” in the country. Any of 26 documents can be used, including foreign passports with valid entry stamps.
Social Security numbers -- which are issued to citizens, green-card holders and other legal residents -- have been required since 1992. But it was eight years before the DMV was allowed access to the Social Security Administration database.
Until then, Gourley said, anyone who applied for a driver’s license -- whether in California legally or not -- could make up a Social Security number.
After November 2000, DMV officials found that thousands of people trying to renew their licenses did not have valid Social Security numbers -- in some cases because they were in the country illegally.
“Whether undocumented immigrants had more of a problem getting a license after the legal presence documents were required in 1994 or once the Social Security number checks started in 2000, I don’t know,” said Bill Branch, a DMV spokesman. “But when Social Security number verification began, there were a lot of undocumented immigrants who couldn’t offer a valid number.”
Branch said the agency had decided it was impractical to check the entire DMV registry against the Social Security database, deciding instead to check only first-time applications or renewals. That way, the list would be purged of false Social Security numbers in five years -- the longest anyone can go without applying to renew a driver’s license.
For years, immigrants looking for help getting driver’s licenses have gone to Leonel Castillo, who works out of a storefront in Stanton. Many tell him they used phony Social Security numbers to obtain licenses, but cannot renew the licenses because they either forgot the numbers they used, he said, or because the DMV had discovered that the numbers were fake.
Jose Luis Sanchez, who lost his car for driving without a license during a transit strike in 2000, is taking no chances in the current walkout.
He is riding a bicycle from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles.
“I tried driving without a license once and it cost me,” the 41-year-old Mexico City native said. In 2000, he split the $800 cost of a car with a friend. When he got caught, the vehicle was impounded and they could not afford to reclaim it. “Of course,” Sanchez said, “I’d like a license.”
Immigrants who cannot get driver’s licenses in California can still obtain them in Oregon and in 13 other states that do not require proof of “legal presence,” said Tyler Moran, a policy analyst for the National Immigration Law Center, a group that studies immigration rights.
Of the 14 states that do not require proof of legal presence, however, nine require forms of proof that effectively add up to the same thing, Moran said.
A dozen other states, however, also accept the Mexican matricula consular as valid ID. Among them are Texas, New Mexico, Washington and Oregon.
“Keeping a large proportion of the population from getting a license is not making us more secure,” Moran said.
It is difficult to know how many undocumented immigrants are driving without licenses, or with suspended or revoked licenses that they obtained fraudulently.
What is known, however, is that California ranks second in the country among states in the proportion of fatal accidents involving drivers without valid licenses -- 21%, compared with a national average of 13.5%, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. From 1993 to 1999, however, California registered a dramatic drop in that percentage, according to the foundation.
The DMV, meanwhile, estimated that the percentage of unlicensed drivers dropped from 6.2% in 1993 to 4.5% in 1999.
With the data inconclusive, both sides in the driver’s license battle echo the Proposition 187 debate: How much does immigration cost? How much and whom does it benefit?
Nativo Lopez, national director of Hermandad Mexicana, an immigrants rights group, said supporters of the licensing law will consider consumer boycotts and work stoppages to drive home their point.
Petitioners, however, promised to demonstrate their own power.
Anita Ferguson, who gathered 1,350 signatures on petitions to recall Davis, said she has already collected 80 names on petitions to repeal the driver’s license law. She’ll be at a chili cook-off in Hidden Valley this weekend gathering more, she said.
“As soon as you say a few words about it,” she said, “people sign.”
Times staff writers Jennifer Mena and Daniel Hernandez contributed to this report.