Gov. Vows to Veto Driver’s License Bill

Times Staff Writers

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will veto legislation approved Thursday to create a separate driver’s license for illegal immigrants in California, a top aide said only hours after the bill passed the state Senate.

The upper house sent the controversial bill to Schwarzenegger on a 21-15 vote, the minimum needed for passage, only to have the governor’s office say he would reject it. It would be the second time in two years that Schwarzenegger has rejected Democratic legislation allowing licenses for illegal immigrants.

Richard Costigan, the governor’s legislative secretary, said the bill was premature because the federal government was still writing regulations on how states should, if they desire, provide driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.


“We will be vetoing the driver’s license bill,” Costigan said Thursday evening.

Even some supporters were uneasy about the newest bill, SB 60, because it creates a second-tier license some considered separate and unequal for those who cannot prove citizenship or legal residency. It requires a unique design and color. The card could be used only for driving, but not for opening a bank account, boarding an airplane or any other official purpose.

The failure to close the issue of providing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants -- a practice California stopped a dozen years ago -- means another round of negotiations with Schwarzenegger, Republicans, Democratic leaders, border activists and immigration advocates over the complex and emotional issue.

State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), author of the legislation, said during debate Thursday that the licenses were the best way to “conform our laws to meet our social realities” -- that illegal immigrants already are here and they are driving without being trained and tested.

In a later interview, Cedillo refused to accept Costigan’s promise of a Schwarzenegger veto: “That doesn’t change anything. We still expect him to sign it, to do his constitutional duty and his moral obligation. We kept our word, and we expect him to keep his.”

Immigration-control advocates were pleased with Schwarzenegger’s decision and said the Legislature should stop sending such bills to the governor. Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, said the veto was needed because “we have to stop rewarding illegal behavior.”

“What this points out is the need for election and redistricting reform,” Spence said. “It is clear [lawmakers] are out of touch with what is going on in California with regards to immigration, and I think the governor gets that.”

In 2003, former Gov. Gray Davis signed a law giving illegal immigrants access to regular licenses -- an action that caused a public outcry that helped spur his recall from office and Schwarzenegger’s election. After the recall, Schwarzenegger persuaded the Legislature to repeal the never-enacted Davis law. Cedillo came back with another bill in 2004, but Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

Throughout negotiations on the new bill, Schwarzenegger had said he was interested in two things: a distinct California license that clearly identifies the driver as an illegal immigrant, and adherence to whatever requirements the federal Department of Homeland Security puts on such documents.

Under the Real ID Act sought by Homeland Security and signed by President Bush in May, states are allowed to grant licenses to illegal immigrants, but the license must be distinct from those used by citizens and legal residents. The separate license is required because airlines will no longer accept passengers from states that offer regular driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

Most states are waiting to see how federal officials write the regulations, which are expected to be finished next year.

“Our feeling is that states should wait and take guidance from the Department of Homeland Security about how to implement the Real ID Act,” said Tyler Moran, policy analyst with the nonprofit National Immigration Law Center in Boise, Idaho, “because there are potential states such as California that could implement policies that then have to be changed.”

To address those concerns, Cedillo amended the bill to delay implementation of the federal requirements in California until after the federal regulations were complete. But Costigan said too many questions remain unanswered about the new federal security regulations -- for illegal and legal residents alike -- to have the Department of Motor Vehicles begin working.

“We do have some significant concerns with how Real ID will be implemented,” Costigan said. “First, you have 24 million licensed Californians who are impacted by Real ID. We have no idea until the federal regulations are promulgated how we will deal with Californians.”

Opponents of the Cedillo legislation said the issue was not regulations but whether California should “reward” illegal immigrants.

Andy Ramirez, founder of the group Friends of the Border Patrol, said the Cedillo bill was “an absolute sham” and the driver’s licenses “are de facto ID cards for those in the country illegally.” Cedillo “is trying to legitimize them being here. If you give them a driver’s license, you are ... approving of what they have done, which was to break the laws of our nation,” he said.

But state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) said a younger generation of Californians in particular believes that allowing licenses to illegal immigrants is a no-brainer. “Are they driving? Yes. Are they here? Yes. Wouldn’t it be better if they were tested and have a license? Yes,” Kuehl said.

Even though Cedillo’s bill had shrunk in scope, any issue involving illegal immigration still packs a political punch, and Schwarzenegger is under pressure from his core Republican constituency to veto the bill. With his popularity having been largely eroded in recent months and polls now showing voters displeased with his three initiatives on the November special election ballot, Schwarzenegger risks alienating loyal Republican voters at a key time.

Federation for American Immigration Reform spokesman Ira Mehlman said, “It is hard to fathom why the Legislature keeps doing this. Most people don’t want this, and it poses national security risks.”

Advocates have had mixed feelings about the distinct licenses for illegal immigrants -- some have equated them to the yellow stars that Nazis required Jews to wear. Adolfo Sierra, president of Casa Guanajuato in Santa Ana, a nonprofit group that promotes culture from that central Mexican state, said, “We should all be treated equally. We should not be creating second- and third-class citizens because they do not have immigration status.”

But he added that the bill could be helpful in some respects. “The state could make money on the licenses for thousands of people who don’t have them now, and immigrants who are driving illegally now could have the right to drive legally.”

Pablo Alvarado, coordinator of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in Los Angeles, said a driver’s license would allow people to get insurance, but “we have been hesitant to support a driver’s license that would be different than all the other driver’s licenses.” Nevertheless, he said, immigrants may want to get a license “because they need to get places, and they want to do it legally.”

In March, Utah began issuing a “driver’s privilege card,” which looks different from regular driver’s licenses. The card is available to any applicant who cannot provide a Social Security number.

Leo Bravo, of the Hispanic Center of Cache Valley in northern Utah, opposed the card because it looked different from a license, but now says that overall, the card is helping undocumented immigrants in his state. “If we are worried about national security, it’s better to know who we have driving on the roads,” he said.


Times staff writer Nancy Vogel contributed to this report. Salladay reported from Sacramento and Delson from Santa Ana.