Latinos, whites split on immigrant laws OKd by Brown

Raul Ortega holds a sign as he celebrates after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a measure allowing people in the country illegally to obtain driver's licenses.
(Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

California voters are generally welcoming toward immigrants who are in the country illegally, but a wide gap exists between whites and Latinos on some new laws hailed by Gov. Jerry Brown when he signed them last month, according to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

The groups differ most on allowing immigrants without legal status to obtain driver’s licenses and practice law.

Nearly 69% of Latino voters but only 44% of whites support the new driving privilege law. The split was sharper on whether those who are in the country illegally should be allowed to become attorneys, with 65% of Latino voters in favor but only 26% of whites.


Neither law gained majority support among all voters.

To win over a growing Latino electorate, California politicians will continue to push for immigrant-friendly legislation, analysts predicted. The poll shows that 61% of Latinos approve of Brown’s performance, compared with 51% of whites.

“Latino voters are a life preserver for Jerry Brown, and in California they’re a very, very big life preserver, and that goes back to the relative import of cultural and social issues,” said Dan Schnur, director of Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

The bipartisan poll reached 1,503 registered California voters by telephone. It was conducted Oct. 30 through Nov. 5 by two polling firms, one Democratic and one Republican. The margin of error overall is 3.1 percentage points, higher for subgroups such as Latinos.

Brown signed 11 immigrant-related measures this fall, but none generated as much controversy as the long-debated driver’s license bill. The licenses will be marked “DP,” for driving privilege.

Overall, 49% support the license law, with 47% opposed. Support was greater for granting licenses without a distinguishing mark, with 51% in favor, 46% opposed.

A decade ago, polls showed that most California voters disapproved of driver’s licenses for immigrants who are in the country illegally, an issue that contributed to Gov. Gray Davis’ recall. But the state’s demographics have shifted, with Latinos now making up 23% of voters. Whites are also more likely to support the licenses than they were in the past.

“There are two factors at play. One is how much of that change is driven by the Latino population getting larger, and two is how much is driven by white voters changing their minds?” said David Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican firm that conducted the poll for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times, along with the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.

As a group, white voters are still less enthusiastic about pro-immigrant measures than Latinos are, drawing the line at rights they see as reserved for citizens.

“It just suggests the population is both divided and not particularly motivated really in a positive way by these measures,” said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.

Two-thirds of white voters are opposed to allowing holders of green cards to serve on juries, with 44% of Latinos opposed. Overall, only 35% of voters supported the measure, which was vetoed by Brown. A majority of whites support a new law allowing those with green cards to serve as poll workers.

More than 50% of Latino voters but only 44% of white voters support the Trust Act, which limits cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. Overall, 48% of voters approve of the law, which Brown signed after vetoing a similar measure last year.

The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll also showed broad support from whites and Latinos for new laws protecting immigrant whistle-blowers from employer retaliation and granting overtime pay to domestic workers.

“Californians are extremely welcoming and supportive of undocumented immigrants and their families, but they still have concerns about those individuals who have committed crimes,” Schnur said.

Denis Nolan, a retired tutor in Daly City, is in favor of driver’s licenses for immigrants without legal status. Many of them are driving anyway, Nolan said, and he would rather have them pass a driving test.

Nolan, a Democrat, would not allow those immigrants to become attorneys, though he is not opposed to green card holders serving on juries. One minor crime should not trigger deportation, but a series of them might be enough, he said.

“If local law enforcement felt that someone was a danger, even if it wasn’t a major crime, they should be held accountable,” said Nolan, 75, who is white. “There’s a benefit in deporting them. I think our jails are too full already.”

As the great-grandson of Mexican immigrants, Ralph Guerrero did not have firsthand experience with the problems faced by immigrants without legal status. Then he met his wife, whose parents crossed the border from Mexico and lived in the United States illegally until receiving amnesty in 1986.

Guerrero, 35, an administrative assistant from Victorville, supports extending many privileges to immigrants who are in the country illegally, including driver’s licenses without distinguishing marks, admission to the bar and serving on a jury.

“This whole country is built off of immigration. Besides Native Americans, everybody is an immigrant,” said Guerrero, a Democrat. “More power to them. Let them come, and give them the opportunity for freedom, just like everyone else who’s stepped into this country.”

Whittier resident Susan B. Pasillas is among the 28% who identify themselves as Latino and oppose the new driving privileges for immigrants lacking legal status.

“If you’re here illegally in a country, I don’t see how you’re entitled to any kind of benefits,” said Pasillas, 55, a Republican who works for a packaging company and who traces part of her ancestry to Mexico.

Eric Lund, a maintenance technician from Crescent City, does not accept the argument that immigrants should get driver’s licenses because they drive anyway.

“To me that’s like saying people are going to murder, so why not make murder legal?” said Lund, 59, a Republican whose great-grandparents immigrated from Sweden. “It’s illegal. It’s right or wrong.”

But Pasillas and Lund say that some of the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally should have a chance to become legal residents.

“I don’t think deportation is even possible,” Lund said. “They’re human beings. It’s very complicated.”