Democratic lawmakers and Latino activists are on the verge of seeing immigrants who are in the country illegally granted the right to a driver's license in California after lawmakers revived a bill that was left for dead in the waning hours of the legislative session.
The state Assembly approved the bill on a 55-19 vote late Thursday, hours after the Senate also voted to pass it. Gov. Jerry Brown issued a statement indicating he would sign it into law, allowing some 2 million people in California to drive legally.
"This bill will enable millions of people to get to work safely and legally," Brown said in the statement. "Hopefully, it will send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due."
The legislation also would make drivers eligible for insurance and training, including written and driving tests required by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The approval on the final day of this year's legislative session came as a surprise.
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Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo of Watsonville, was prepared to put his legislation on hold until next year because of opposition from immigrant-right groups. They had objected to a provision that calls for the licenses to look different from regular licenses by giving them a special designation.
The cards will carry notification that it is only an ID for driving, and that it does not establish eligibility for employment, voting or seeking public benefits.
"In essence, it puts a big flag on the card that this is not for a person that is in this country legally," said Assemblywoman Diane Harkey. "So I kind of question the purpose of the bill.''
But Latino lawmakers in the Senate revived the bill in the session's waning hours. They said that legally licensing people to drive was more important than concerns over what the licenses would look like.
"This is a very historic night for all immigrant communities," Alejo said on the Assembly floor. "We have had far too many families who have been divided, far too many workers who have been deported, for not having something so basic, so simple, as a driver's license,''
An estimated 2.5 million undocumented immigrants live in California, according to a 2010 Research study.
Davi Rodrigues, of Save Our State, called the bill "poorly crafted" and expressed doubts about whether it would actually be implemented.
"The state legislature has sunk to their usual low level during last-minute posturing and dealing on closing days of legislative action for this session," he said in a statement. "A concept that has been at the heart of deep divisions between politicians and their constituency for about two decades now has once again risen from the back burner and rushed to the serving tray during a mad rush to cram a few political chef's undesirable specialties down the throats of millions of California citizens who have been ordering something completely opposite for just as long.
"The legislature has created yet another special class of persons who are to be exempted from average laws. Laws that discriminate on the basis of country of origin are constitutionally suspect. This law discriminates against California residents born in this country, as they will not be able to sign their way into a drivers license without supplying their social security numbers. I'm suspicious that this may be a good reason for this law to be overturned."
Initially, the bill provided licenses to those who could produce proof that they paid taxes or work in the United States. The final bill asks the DMV to determine required documentation.
Similar bills have been presented to lawmakers during the past decade. In 2003, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed a driver's license bill that was later repealed after Davis was recalled. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed other bills that cleared the state Legislature.
If Brown signs the bill, it would make California the 10th state to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for licenses.
"It is a chance to be an authorized driver and drive safely for everybody in California," said activist Antonio Bernabe.
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