October 31, 2003


First Shots Fired In War Over Driver’s Licenses

By Pilar Marrero

LOS ANGELES—Arnold Schwarzenegger’s incoming administration is already facing its first major political storm. The bill granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, signed by the outgoing Gov. Gray Davis, has put right-wing radio on the warpath, and could even evolve into an international issue for the governor-elect.

Republicans noisily vow to repeal the bill, while many Latino political activists and Democrats are readying the trenches to defend it. The White House, too, will be watching closely. President Bush’s hopes for reviving the Republicans’ competitiveness in California may well hinge on how Schwarzenegger handles this potentially divisive issue.

The debate around driver’s licenses, many political analysts say, could become as explosive as the furor over Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative passed by voters that denied public services to undocumented immigrants. Although the courts overturned Prop. 187, the racially divisive way it was promoted by some Republicans earned the party the enmity of many Latinos.

If an unseemly debate over immigration erupts in California, it could undermine the Republican Party’s well-funded effort to attract crucial Latino votes in California, and beyond, for 2004 presidential elections.

In his first visit to Sacramento, the governor-elect made it clear that he still opposes SB60, which will allow an estimated 2 million undocumented immigrants to apply for licenses effective Jan. 1, 2004.

Schwarzenegger added that if the legislature doesn’t revise the bill, he would support a referendum to overturn the law, a referendum that has gathered support thanks mainly to the state Republican Party’s right wing. The reaction from SB60’s supporters came quickly: some say they are willing to “go to war” if necessary.

Rhetoric on both sides has become heated. Just last week, two popular talk radio show hosts in Los Angeles, John and Ken from KFI Radio, were broadcasting live from Seal Beach hoping to bring in listeners to sign petitions for a ballot referendum to overturn SB60. The campaign was launched by Dick Mountjoy, a former state senator known as one of the first major sponsors of Prop. 187. John and Ken brought in spokespersons from Mountjoy’s campaign and repeatedly lambasted Gil Cedillo, the Latino state senator who sponsored SB60 and “those illegals.”

“Who gives a crap about Cedillo?” said one of them at some point. “He’s being overthrown, he just doesn’t know it yet.”

Cedillo has been through this before. He had to battle fellow Democrat Gov. Gray Davis, who vetoed the driver’s license bill twice before finally signing it in an act of desperation for Latino votes during the recall. Just hours after Schwarzenegger was elected, Cedillo was using the word “negotiation” and looking for ways to reach out to the new leader to avoid losing the law completely.

“We are willing to take a look at what his concerns are and bring in some amendments that could address those concerns,” Cedillo says.

In Mexico, there is concern that Schwarzenegger’s election could mean a return to the atmosphere of the 1990s, when a Republican governor, Pete Wilson, was at odds with the Mexican government for months over Prop. 187. Last week, Luis Ernesto Derbez, Mexico’s foreign minister, stopped in Los Angeles and met with Schwarzenegger for two hours.

“Mexico is worried about the licenses and the return of an anti-immigrant sentiment,” says political scientist David Ayon, of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “The concern is not just in Mexico, but in the White House and the higher levels of the Republican Party.”

Schwarzenegger must find a middle ground that will allow the estimated 2 million undocumented people who live and work in the state to drive legally and also calm the majority of Californians who believe such a move would threaten national security, Ayon says.

“Some believe this (debate) could mean trouble for the state,” says Ayon. “I think this will be the first time that we see some of the Democratic Latino leadership behaving somewhat like the Cubans in Miami: ready to go to political war to defend their political interest.”

Cedillo himself has made it clear that he will fight. Upon receiving the Benito Juarez Public Service Award from Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn recently, Cedillo said: “Immigrants are not terrorists; we are workers, and this is why we have the right to live here with dignity and respect. The campaign starts today to defend that right.”

Immigrant rights activists know that if the referendum to overturn the bill reaches the next statewide ballot in March, SB60 will be history and very hard to bring back any time soon.

The anger that overthrew Davis and created a backlash against the licenses is still working against the bill, says Nativo López, president of Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, which promises massive mobilizations and an economic boycott by Latinos to defend the driver’s license law.

“We have to show this for what it is — another anti-immigrant, anti-Latino effort by the far right,” Nativo says.

Even before he tackles complicated policy issues like the budget, Schwarzenegger will have to face one of the most delicate issues that have plagued California for decades — its relationship with its own diversity, and the immigration that created it.

Pilar Marrero (Pilar.Marrero@laopinion.com) is political editor and columnist for La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles.

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