Victory for immigrant rights: Gov. Davis signs drivers license bill

LOS ANGELES – California Gov. Gray Davis made history on Sept. 5 when he signed a bill that will give an estimated two million undocumented immigrants the right to a driver’s license in this state.

Senate Bill 60, introduced by state Sen. Gilbert Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), was signed by Davis outside of an East Los Angeles Department of Motor Vehicles office where white balloons flew in the air and loud chants of “Si se pudo!” (Yes, we did it!) and “No recall!” greeted a stage filled with prominent elected officials, labor and community leaders.

Gov. Davis said “hard-working immigrants work, pay taxes and they deserve the right to drive to work.”

Joy over the signing of the bill resonated two days later at the 46th annual Mexican Independence Day parade in East Los Angeles, where over 100,000 parade watchers cheered Gov. Davis and greeted him with “Thank You” signs when he waved to the crowd. Davis rode atop a double-decker bus with Cedillo, Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn and Assemblymember Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who introduced the bill in the State Assembly.

Nunez, the former political director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, told the World that the significance of the bill is far reaching and marks an important turning point.

“With this law, undocumented workers who are contributors to our economy are being recognized as human beings who will have the same right to a driver’s license as others in California,” he said. “I am so excited and so proud because I believe that winning this law will have an impact on the national level as we look to win more fair and humane immigration policies.”

In stark contrast to the joy in the Latino community was the immediate attack against the bill from Republican gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger, who told Orange County voters that the driver’s license bill is “leaving ourselves open to terrorism.”

“Anyone can go get a driver’s license without a criminal background check,” Schwarzenegger said as he vowed to overturn the law if elected.

The angry reaction from Latinos to Schwarzenegger was evident at the signing ceremony with chants of “Davis Si, Terminator No!” and at the Mexican Independence Day parade where Schwarzenegger was disinvited for his anti-SB 60 stance. Parade organizers said Schwarzenegger’s support for the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994 was another reason for disinviting him.

In lockstep with Schwarzenegger were fellow Republicans who met in Sacramento on Sept. 8 to launch a referendum to reverse the new driver’s license law. They will have 90 days to collect signatures to put the issue on a future ballot.

The new legislation, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2004, ends the requirement that all applicants submit Social Security numbers, which are not available to the undocumented. Now applicants may submit a federal taxpayer identification number or “other identifier or number that is deemed appropriate” by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The law also repeals the requirement that all applicants submit proof that their presence in the United States is authorized.

The law is supported by many law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department. They view it as a measure that will safeguard all California drivers and increase the number of drivers with car insurance.

State Sen. Cedillo, a former SEIU labor leader and long time immigrant rights activist, fought tirelessly for five years for passage of SB 60, arguing that this was basic to winning justice for immigrants as well as safety for millions of drivers. But there was also a personal crusade involved. Cedillo had promised his wife, Ruby Oliva, who died of cancer last year, that he would accomplish this.

“I am very happy and I am very relieved,” said Cedillo to the World after the signing ceremony. “I fulfilled my promise to my wife. She asked me to make this a priority because she believed that it was unjust that undocumented immigrants be denied a driver’s license. We did that today,” he said with a big smile.

Cedillo also told the World that the Republican attack against the law must be answered on election day, Oct. 7, by supporting Gov. Davis. “Latinos and everyone must mobilize to vote ‘no’ against the recall in order to secure this victory,” he said.

The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com