State Senate President Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, left, and and Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, look over a drivers license as the state Senate debated a an immigrant driver's license bill, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013.Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California would become the latest state to grant immigrants who are in the country illegally the right to a driver's license under a bill that passed the Legislature late Thursday and that Gov. Jerry Brown supports.
The success of the legislation in the state with the nation's largest immigrant population comes after years of setbacks for Democratic lawmakers and Latino activists.
The state Assembly approved the bill on a 55-19 vote late in the evening, hours after the Senate passed it on a 28-8 vote. The Democratic governor issued a statement indicating he would sign it into law, which would make California the 10th state to allow immigrants to apply for licenses.
"This bill will enable millions of people to get to work safely and legally," Brown said in his statement, issued immediately after the Assembly vote. "Hopefully, it will send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due."
The approval on the final day of this year's legislative session was a surprise.
The author of AB60, 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 be given a special designation, fearing the different look could lead to discrimination.
The legislation was revived after lawmakers persuaded some of the activists to drop their objections.
Alejo was elated as he presented the bill on the Assembly floor.
"This is a very historic night for all immigrant communities," he said, as a crowd of Latino senators and Assembly members gathered behind him. They hugged and cheered when the measure sailed through on the final vote.
"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," Alejo said.
Several other attempts had passed the Legislature only to be vetoed by previous governors. Alejo said the author of most of those, former state lawmaker Gil Cedillo, had asked him to continue pushing the issue.
The bill could allow some 2 million people in California to drive legally by allowing immigrants with proper identification to apply for a license.
In the Assembly, Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill said granting a license with special markings to undocumented Californians would put employers and landlords in a conflict between complying with state and federal laws.
Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, pointed to the card's notice, which will state 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," Harkey said. "So I kind of question the purpose of the bill."
Supporters said California's roads would be safer because immigrants would have to pass the written and driving tests, and would be eligible to buy insurance. The insurance industry and the California Police Chiefs Association supported the bill, Alejo said.
Before 1993, citizenship was not a requirement for holding a license.
Latino lawmakers in the Senate rallied on the Legislature's final day to revive the bill, saying that legally licensing people to drive was more important than concerns over what the licenses would look like.
"AB60 is not perfect, but it moves our state in the right direction," said Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, who is chairman of the Latino Legislative Caucus. "The alternative is a status quo system that continues to penalize hardworking families with tickets, court fees and car impoundments. These families deserve better."