Schwarzenegger faces battle to repeal license law for undocumented
SAN FRANCISCO - Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger said it would be a top priority during his first 100 days in office: repealing a new law that allows undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses. Easier said than done, politicians and activists said Friday.
While exit polls showed about 70 percent of voters in California's recall election disapproved of the law, it may be tough to wipe off the books. Gov. Gray Davis signed the measure last month amid accusations that he was pandering to Hispanic voters.
Republican Schwarzenegger plans to ask the Democrat-controlled state Legislature, currently in recess, to convene a special session where a bill would be introduced to repeal the law, said Rob Stutzman, a spokesman for his transition team.
"This is a central issue to the governor-elect's campaign," Stutzman said. "We believe he's been elected with a pretty clear mandate. It will be up to Democratic legislators to determine what they'll do with this issue."
This isn't the only campaign pledge Schwarzenegger may have trouble keeping. He also seems likely to clash with Democratic lawmakers on his pledge to roll back the tripling of California's car tax despite the state's financial woes.
Schwarzenegger has raised concerns about security problems with the driver's license law, noting that it does not require a background check. Supporters, meanwhile, contend it's a public safety measure that will make the streets safer for everyone by ensuring all drivers know the rules of the road and can buy insurance.
There's "no chance" an effort to repeal the law would pass, said state Sen. Gil Cedillo, the Los Angeles Democrat who authored the driver's license bill. The measure cleared the Senate 23-15 after winning Assembly approval 44-30.
On Friday, immigration rights advocates held a news conference pledging to fight to ensure the law goes into effect on Jan. 1.
Schwarzenegger "has probably more in common with the immigrant community than some of the Republicans that he surrounds himself with," said Edward Headington, spokesman for Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, a Santa Ana-based advocacy group. "We're hoping that he'll meet with members of the Latino community to talk about this."
Stutzman acknowledged "it's difficult to tell how the Democratic Legislature will respond," but said Schwarzenegger will "first give the Legislature a chance to repeal it."
"If they do not, he intends to go to the ballot," letting voters decide whether to get rid of the law, Stutzman said.
A Republican-backed group called Save Our License has already collected about 40,000 signatures to overturn the law by placing a referendum on the ballot next March, when the state holds its presidential primary. It must collect about 374,000 signatures by early December to do so.
Other options for reversing the law include filing a lawsuit or issuing an executive order ordering the Department of Motor Vehicles not to carry it out, but observers say both are unlikely and would be open to challenges.
Schwarzenegger, who came to California from Austria, said he supports immigrants "but we should not invite fraud or undermine law enforcement. The federal government has expressed security concerns over this measure, and in a time of heightened national security, we should not undermine our nation's immigration laws."
A previous version of the bill required immigrants to pass criminal background checks. The current law, which returns state policy to the way it was about a decade ago, does not require the checks but says applicants must be photographed and fingerprinted and their physical descriptions and addresses recorded.
Dan Savage, Cedillo's chief of staff, said voter opposition to the driver's license measure may be a result of the state's economic hard times. People are afraid the law will attract more immigrants to California when the job market is tight.
"Immigrants are the first ones who people look at and say, 'Well it's kind of their fault, and they're coming, and they're taking our jobs,' " Savage said. "In good times ... people are more willing to say they contribute to the economy."
Headington warned the issue could attract the controversy that followed Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that sought to deny public education, health care and social services to undocumented immigrants.
"People are calling it the son of 187," Headington said. "Even though Schwarzenegger talks about bringing both sides together, I think we're going back perhaps to the (former Gov. Pete) Wilson era of divisive and wedge-issue politics.
"We hope that we have an opportunity to convince him otherwise."