Wading into a divisive, politically charged debate, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said Wednesday that California should issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
The chief becomes one of the most prominent local figures to support the idea that state lawmakers have battled over repeatedly in the last 15 years. And Beck's stance is certain to further inflame critics who are already angry at the chief for his efforts to liberalize rules on how his officers impound the cars of unlicensed drivers.
"My personal belief is that they should be able to" have licenses, Beck said in response to a question during a meeting with Times' reporters and editorial writers. "The reality is that all the things that we've done — 'we' being the state of California — over the last 14, 16 years have not reduced the problem one iota, haven't reduced undocumented aliens driving without licenses. So we have to look at what we're doing. When something doesn't work over and over and over again, my view is that you should reexamine it to see if there is another way that makes more sense."
Beck said he does not believe licenses for illegal immigrants should be identical to standard licenses. Saying "it could be a provisional license, it could be a non-resident license," he acknowledged that state officials would have to find ways to address widely held concerns that giving licenses to people who are in the country illegally could make it easier for terrorists to go undetected.
Such concerns, however, were outweighed for Beck by what he said would be improved safety on California's roads and the ability of police to identify the people they encounter. "Why wouldn't you want to put people through a rigorous testing process? Why wouldn't you want to better identify people who are going to be here?" he said.
Beck, for example, said he expected the number of hit-and-run accidents would decrease if illegal immigrants were licensed, because they would not have to fear being caught without a license at accidents.
In coming out in favor of licenses for illegal immigrants, Beck echoed his predecessor, Chief William J. Bratton, who also voiced support for the idea. Beck signaled a willingness to use his sway as a respected law enforcement leader to lobby for changes in state law that prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving licenses. "I want to be able to move this issue," he said.
Asked whether he would be permitted in his capacity as police chief to, for example, testify in support of the idea at a legislative hearing, Beck said he had "to follow the lead of the city's elected officials. The mayor is pretty good with me on that. I know he would support me doing that." Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa did not respond to calls for comment.
In a brief interview, Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich joined Beck, calling it "a matter of public safety." Issuing licenses to illegal immigrants, he said, would help ensure that people on the road were capable drivers, although he added that insurance regulations would need to be tightened to combat uninsured drivers. Trutanich said he first voiced his position on licenses last year in La Opinion.
Beck's comments were embraced quickly by state Assemblyman Gilbert Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who has been involved in repeated attempts since 1998 to pass a state law allowing licenses for illegal immigrants. The LAPD, he said, "is extraordinary … in that they have not allowed themselves to be politicized on the question of public safety vs. immigration. They truly put public safety first."
Critics of expanded rights for illegal immigrants were equally quick to condemn Beck for speaking out on the license issue. Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, challenged Beck's notion that allowing illegal immigrants to have licenses would improve road safety, saying the move would "represent a threat to public safety and national security." He added that issuing the licenses would be "providing a gold-plated membership card into society for people who are not here legally."
Beck's stance on the issue stems from his push in recent months to make controversial changes in the LAPD's vehicle impound rules for unlicensed drivers. Because illegal immigrants cannot receive licenses in California, they are presumed to make up a disproportionate percentage of the state's unlicensed drivers and, Beck believes, have been unfairly affected by the current impound protocols.
Under Beck's proposed changes, officers would continue to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers, but allow those who have auto insurance, a legitimate form of identification and no previous convictions for unlicensed driving to avoid a 30-day hold that carries stiff fees and fines. Drivers would also avoid having their cars impounded if a licensed driver was in the car or able to arrive "immediately."
The proposed changes set off an angry protest from police union officials and some Angelenos, who argued that the changes would reward people for breaking the law and allow potentially dangerous drivers to remain on the roads — claims that Beck rebutted. The department is delaying the new changes until city officials can review a recent legal opinion from state lawyers that questioned the legality of the moves.
The current battle over licenses for illegal immigrants dates to the late 1990s, when Cedillo and others picked up the issue. In 2003, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill that gave illegal immigrants the right to licenses, but the move was so unpopular that it helped spur the campaign to recall Davis. With Davis ousted and opponents threatening a statewide referendum to repeal the law, Cedillo said he and other supporters agreed to repeal the license law. Incoming Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed to support a new law that included tighter restrictions and identification requirements, but went on to veto those laws multiple times, according to Cedillo.
Cedillo said he plans to introduce legislation again before he is termed out of office at the end of the year. Gov. Jerry Brown has expressed opposition to such a law.
Times staff writer Robert Faturechi contributed to this report.