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CAPITAL BATTLE REAL DRIVER'S LICENSE FIGHT, IN BROWN AND WHITE.

Byline: MARIEL GARZA

FROM his seventh-floor office in the Oviatt Building in downtown Los Angeles, state Sen. Gil Cedillo looked sternly into eight TV news cameras and threw down the gauntlet.

``I'm calling for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to come home now and sign the Immigrant Responsibility and Security Act,'' Cedillo said, first in English, then in Spanish.

No matter that Schwarzenegger was in New York City, and was set to be the highlighted speaker at the Republic National Convention that evening. It was a good day to get news coverage for Cedillo's controversial bill to allow California's estimated 6 million undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses, and to launch the first challenge to the man who stands in its way. Not much news was happening anywhere except the Big Apple, and a couple dozen journalists showed up for a press conference that was billed as informational-only.

After six years of trying to get this bill made into law, Cedillo has clearly learned a few things about getting the message out. He followed up the Tuesday challenge with a news conference the next day, in which he stood by the side of his most influential supporter, Los Angles Police Chief William Bratton, and called out Arnold again. Cedillo continued with the news-conference-a-day approach because he's come so close to making his bill law - thus fulfilling a promise made to his late wife before she died.

Last weekend, the state Legislature passed SB 1160, moving it and about 1,000 other proposed laws over to the Governor's Office for either a signature or a veto.

An earlier version of the bill was actually signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis shortly before the recall election last year. But the bill had no substantial security precautions, and Schwarzenegger persuaded the Legislature to repeal it, promising to support another version that had some real safeguards. He's an immigrant himself, after all, and has some empathy for the desire to grab a piece of the American dream in whatever way you can.

Schwarzenegger hasn't said which way he's leaning with this new version, even though it has so many security safeguards that it will probably scare off most immigrants. However, his squishy responses so far indicate he's going to say no. Something about a mark that he wants to see on the driver's licenses seems to be issue. Although you'd think that someone from a country ravaged by the Third Reich might avoid policy that forces members of society to bear a mark indicating their undesirable status.

It's fun political theater for a slow news summer, but despite the emotional, sometimes vicious argument over the bill, it's not really about driver's licenses at all. This is about how the inhabitants of the state of California feel about the millions of Spanish-speaking illegal immigrants living among them.

Don't fool yourself that's it about points of law, homeland security and protecting ourselves from terrorism. No one cares about whether the cute blond Danish au pair who's overstayed her visitor's visa gets a license to drive. The argument starts with those dark-skinned, tamale-eating, beat-up Toyota-driving crossing- our-border-in-the-dead-of-night Mexicans or Central Americans and ends with the fear of the growing Latino diaspora that now accounts for roughly one-third of the state's official population, and nearly half of Los Angeles'.

That's why Arnold won't commit to the bill. Despite his shtick as the tough guy in Sacramento, he's not going to stick his political neck out for a constituency that can't even vote for him in the 2008 presidential elections. (Critics of the bill charge that driver's licenses will make it easier to commit voting fraud, which seems farfetched considering we can't even get most actual citizens to the polls.) If you support the driver's license bill, then you're labeled a bleeding-heart liberal who's helping to create Mexifornia. If you don't, you're a conservative racist who has a great deal of financial interest in maintaining an underclass of easily exploited workers.

It's not a great choice.

But we do have a bit of situation here, one that Schwarzenegger's going to have to deal with either this month or down the road. Some 6 million illegal immigrants whose names we don't know live here, a population nearly twice the size of Los Angeles'. Cedillo's bill may be symbolic, it may be flawed but it's the best suggestion yet anyone's come up with to start to know, and deal with, the unknown underclass.

SB 1160 is probably doomed. But you can bet it will come back in some form. Cedillo's still got the promise to keep. You can also lay money that the larger debate about immigrants and immigration California has only just begun - and that it's going to get uglier.
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 5, 2004
Words:789
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