A License To Veto
TRUE-BLUE FANS of Arnold Schwarzenegger could hardly forget the touching and memorable end of Terminator 3, when the actors lovable lunk of a cyborg saves the day by blowing up both himself and the evil, seemingly unstoppable rival cyborg. Thats the moment when Schwarzenegger once again promises hell be back for a sequel.
Its a sentiment that state Senator Gil Cedillo can easily identify with. Three times, hes shepherded through laws that would have given Californias illegal immigrants the right to drive legally. And three times, hes been shot down, more or less at the door of the governors office. The last time, last fall, it was Schwarzenegger, the states new celebrity governor, who muscled through a repeal of Cedillos bill, but also promised that he would sign a better version in the future. Now, close to a year later, Schwarzenegger says the drivers-license bill before him just isnt safe enough, and that it deserves his veto.
Critics say he has out-and-out broken his promise, especially because of the bills safeguards. This version has background checks and security measures second to none, said state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a Los Angeles Democrat. This is a drivers license with the highest level of security weve seen anywhere in the world.
Thats not enough, said Schwarzenegger spokesman Vince Sollitto: The governor has been clear since the campaign that he would like to find a way to allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally in California. The governor believes the legislation sent to him doesnt contain sufficient security standards.
It isnt clear, however, that any safeguards would suffice, given the political security risk that may be driving Schwarzeneggers actions. Improving highway safety and giving working-class immigrants a break just doesnt rate on that priority scale.
It all goes back to a November 2003 meeting in Schwarzeneggers personal office, upstairs from Schatzi on Main, the Santa Monica restaurant he started in 1991 with wife Maria Shriver. Schwarzeneggers guest, Senator Cedillo, arrived as restaurant patrons were finishing their swordfish medallions, their vegetarian spaghettini and their kaiserschmarrn, an Austrian-style pancake made with eggs and raisins. When Cedillo entered Schwarzeneggers office, he found the governor snacking on the restaurants apple strudel, made according to his mothers recipe. Cedillo accepted a fruit drink while gazing about a room that reminded him of a museum, filled with Schwarzenegger movie posters and memorabilia.
Cedillo, whos made the drivers-license issue a personal crusade, arrived ready to deal. For several years, hed responded to vetoes from Governor Gray Davis by trying to address Davis objections. Then, last fall, Davis signed the Cedillo bill under the pressure of the recall election. If anything, the move backfired for Davis. It made him seem overly opportunistic in pandering to the Latino Democratic base.
Schwarzenegger had campaigned against the drivers-license bill. If necessary, the popular new governor was ready to support a voter initiative to undo the law. Instead, Cedillo agreed to a bipartisan, no-mess repeal in the Legislature, as long as Schwarzenegger would later support a better license bill.
Cedillo, a Los Angeles Democrat, was willing to do almost anything to win the support of Republican Schwarzenegger except to settle for an immigrant drivers license that looked different.
As Cedillo tells it, Schwarzenegger understood. Im an immigrant, the governor reportedly said. He pointed to his own wrist, emphasizing personal experience. I know if policeman see license, see that mark, that youre undocumented, they dont have to bother with you. I know sometimes people treat immigrants differently. You dont have to tell me about discrimination.
The governor remembers things differently. Im not saying that [Cedillos] lying, said Schwarzenegger at a press conference last week. Im just saying that hes overly enthusiastic when he makes those things. Lets be kind.
That sort of remark, delivered with trademark Schwarzenegger charm, makes the other sides blood boil. But even if Cedillos version is correct, Schwarzenegger still could simply have changed his mind. At that same meeting, said Cedillo, two members of the governors staff also were present. And they were not as encouraging as the governor himself. It is not unlike Schwarzenegger to be overcome by the good will of the moment, and then reconfigure his political calculus upon later reflection. It wasnt long before Cedillo recognized worrisome signs.
At the staff level, the Governors Office was concerned about pressure from AM radio, said Cedillo. They would bring it to our attention. These were the usual suspects, the right-wing talkers and shock jocks, including John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou of the John & Ken Show on KFI AM 640. Theyd done so much for Schwarzeneggers candidacy by repeatedly putting him on the air and by relentlessly attacking Gray Davis. These radio hosts were not only a tribune for Schwarzeneggers right-wing base, but also for other disaffected voters. And they shrilly opposed any notion of a drivers license for illegal immigrants. Why should the state provide a drivers license to people living in the country illegally?
There is a pragmatic response: An estimated 1 million immigrants are driving anyway without insurance, without proper training and with a powerful incentive to flee the scene of any accident.
Schwarnegger says hes more persuaded by higher-priority concerns over security. The FBI and our Homeland Security Office has a problem, to give them drivers licenses that look the same as ours, where they can open up bank accounts, go through airports, and do business and get other documents, he told reporters.
Therefore, I suggested to do a drivers license that looks different . . . so its acceptable to the California people and it is also just for driving legally, and not for anything else.
But neither a U.S. citizen nor a foreign national needs a drivers license to board an airplane or open a bank account. And if they did, the fake licenses for sale near MacArthur Park would probably pass muster. When pressed on the matter, spokesman Sollitto could not identify a single task that a drivers license would uniquely make possible other than driving legally.
Cedillos legislation would establish higher security standards than any of the 10 states that offer these licenses. (California allowed such licenses, too, without the intense security measures, until 1994.) The bill provides for taking a full set of fingerprints and performing state and federal criminal-background checks, including a check against the database of known gangs and terrorist organizations. And the identification standard is the same one used for citizenship. The applicant pays for the program with higher fees, set for now at $141. No license holders could use their license as ID to purchase a gun the background check on the gun purchase would flag them. And licenses would not be issued to anyone with a criminal history.
LAPD Police Chief William Bratton is a believer. Ill be happy to have any would-be terrorist come up and give me their photograph and fingerprints, he said at a press conference. Id like to start the line right to my right.
The standards are so taxing on immigrants that the ACLU does not support the bill. Another initial critic was MALDEF, a civil rights organization that focuses on Latino issues. Its since come onboard.
Cedillo, in an interview at a Labor Day rally, hasnt given up on Schwarzenegger: My hope is that he will sign the bill and that he will honor his word. If he has any concerns, we can go back and address the concerns.
But theres just no groundswell of support for Cedillos bill among Schwarzeneggers key constituencies. By insisting on making the licenses look different, Schwarzenegger effectively introduced a poison pill, without explicitly abandoning his earlier pledge of cooperation.
To shift Schwarzeneggers perception, Cedillos side presented an opinion poll that shows majority support for the license once its security features are explained. But a nasty initiative campaign against the licenses and anyone who backed them could easily obscure rational discussion.
So it looks almost certain that immigrants will have to wait as Schwarzenegger tacks a course to the political right and the politically safe. And Senator Gilbert Cedillo will not hesitate to appropriate the sentiment of Schwarzeneggers tag line. Theres no question that come next year, hell be back.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.
- Labor Day DUI Crackdown Peaks This Weekend
Sat., Sep. 5, 8:00pm
Sun., Sep. 6, 12:35pm
Sun., Sep. 6, 1:00pm
Sun., Sep. 6, 7:00pm
- Moving Company Will Help You Leave an Abusive Partner for Free
- Wildlife Freeway Overpass Is Awesome, but Don't Hold Your Breath