Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday signed legislation in Fresno that will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses, a stroke of the pen that capped a nearly two-decade effort by immigrant-rights activists to pass the law.
"This truly is an historic moment," Brown said as he stood on the front steps of Fresno City College's Old Administration Building before a raucous crowd who supported the legislation.
Brown noted that California is a land of immigrants, going back 12,000 years to when Asians crossed a land bridge into Alaska and eventually moved south. Today, immigrants to California have "picked our food, they built our houses, they've waited on our tables -- but they've been in the shadow. Well, today, they become legal drivers in California."
Brown was joined in Fresno by the bill's author, Assembly Member Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, who called Assembly Bill 60 "a measure that will ensure all drivers in California are properly trained, licensed and insured."
He also noted that the legislation was the product of many months of discussion and negotiation that included agriculture, labor, law enforcement and community advocates. The California Police Chiefs Association and the Western Growers Association, among others, supported the bill.
"When you consider that one in five fatal crashes in California involved an unlicensed driver, it benefits us as a community to ensure that those who share our roadways know the driving rules and can demonstrate their driving proficiency by taking a California driving test," Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer said in an interview.
Dyer stood on the Old Administration Building steps Thursday with Brown.
Voices for, against
Others speaking were farmer David Mas Masumoto of Del Rey, who recalled previous immigrants who faced struggle in California, including Japanese who were put in internment camps during World War II.
"As a farmer, I know these faces have for too long been hidden in the shadows and we now have the opportunity to give them names," he said.
Isabel Barreras, a Madera resident and State Center Community College District trustee, recalled how her immigrant parents left Mexico and came to California in early 1970s. She joined her parents and siblings, "cramming into a van" to travel to the fields because they couldn't drive.
Miguel Bibanco, an 18-year-old Edison High graduate and Fresno City College student who was on stage with Brown, said he looked forward to being able to drive legally.
"We're just looking for that opportunity to be recognized as people in this state," he said. "We want the opportunity to be able to drive to work, to drive to school. We shouldn't have to be afraid to talk to the police, to go to work."
In fact, the crowd Thursday seemed universally in support of the bill. Not a protester or dissenter could be found -- but plenty exist.
One is Fresno businessman and Central Valley Tea Party media coordinator Serafin Quintanar.
"I oppose it," Quintanar said of the law, "first and foremost because it is rewarding people who are breaking the law."
But he doesn't buy other arguments made by supporters, including Dyer, that it will make roadways safer.
Dyer said unlicensed drivers are more likely to flee the scene of an accident and drive without insurance.
The law -- which becomes operative by Jan. 1, 2015 -- requires undocumented residents to pass a written and driving test and obtain proof of insurance and a license before driving.
But Quintanar is skeptical that a license will convince those currently unlicensed drivers who are involved in an accident to stick around. He also thinks the drivers will continue to stay on the roadways, even if their license is suspended or they let their insurance coverage lapse.
Still, public opinion appears to be moving in favor of granting the licenses to undocumented residents.
In a February Field Poll, a 52% to 43% majority favored allowing undocumented residents to obtain licenses. That was a reversal from two previous Field polls that dated to 2005 in which majorities opposed the idea.
Now, it is somewhat of a national trend.
Watershed for licenses
According to the National Immigration Law Center, 11 states and Puerto Rico are now issuing driver's licenses or driving privilege cards to undocumented immigrants.
And, the law center says, 2013 is proving a watershed year for the effort. When this year's state legislative sessions began, only Washington, New Mexico, and Utah were issuing such licenses.
Besides California, the others that enacted laws this year are Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon and Vermont, as well as Puerto Rico.
California's road wasn't an easy one, starting in the mid-1990s when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson signed a law requiring driver's license applicants to prove they were in the country legally.
Since then, there were several attempts to give undocumented residents the right to obtain licenses, but vetoes and incidents such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made the goal elusive -- until now.
Brown actually had two signing ceremonies for AB 60. The first was in Los Angeles. The governor then flew to Fresno. The Los Angeles event was the actual signing; Fresno's signing was ceremonial, the governor's office said.
The governor was joined by Assembly Members Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, and Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield. State Sen. Anthony Cannella, a Ceres Republican and co-author of the legislation, was in Los Angeles for the signing, but not Fresno.
Cannella was one of just four GOP legislators to support the bill. Another from the Valley was newly elected Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford. But Vidak wasn't on hand Thursday. A Brown spokesman said he was invited, but that was news to Vidak spokeswoman Jann Taber.
"The governor did not extend an invitation for him to attend," she said.
Vidak's support for the bill upset Quintanar, who said he understands that Vidak is in a competitive district and must stand for reelection next year, but "you've got to stand on principle at some point."
After Brown signed AB60, the state Department of Motor Vehicles issued a news release saying it would immediately begin work on regulations that will detail how applicants can prove their identity and California residency.
The DMV will also propose a license design, but noted any proposal must first pass muster with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Licenses, the DMV said, will look similar to current licenses, but will likely have the abbreviation "DP" for driving privilege as opposes to the "DL" for driver license that legal state residents have.
Despite the difference, the new law prohibits discrimination based on the license and also prohibits it being used for a criminal investigation or detention on a person's immigration status.
DMV officials estimate that around 1.4 million undocumented residents could apply for driver's licenses over the next three years.
But Brown wasn't stopping there.
Now that undocumented residents are "recognized by the law of California," he said, it sends a message to Congress.
"It's not about driving a car," Brown told the Fresno audience. "It's about a path to citizenship through comprehensive immigration reform."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, firstname.lastname@example.org or @johnellis24 on Twitter.