License Plan for Illegals Totters
The sponsor of legislation to issue drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants delays a vote as opposition grows.
Steve Bousquet, St. Petersburg Times Online, Apr. 13
TALLAHASSEE — A plan backed by Gov. Jeb Bush to allow illegal immigrants to get drivers’ licenses in Florida appears dead in the Legislature, as lawmakers face growing opposition from sheriffs and constituents.
In an ominous sign Monday, Sen. Rudy Garcia, the sponsor of legislation giving licenses to non-citizens, delayed a vote in the Senate Transportation Committee after losing the support of Republicans on the panel.
“It’s a very difficult issue to move forward,” said Garcia, R-Hialeah.
With Bush’s backing, Garcia hoped to grant two-year licenses to foreign nationals and illegal immigrants who are fingerprinted, pass background checks and have their documents verified by the consulates of their native countries.
Immigrants also would have to prove they owned or leased a car.
Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants travel Florida’s roads daily without licenses or auto insurance. Bush has criticized “a policy of denial” in Florida that treats working, taxpaying non-citizens as “lepers.”
The issue poses a delicate predicament for the Republican Party. The GOP is trying to appeal to a broader base of Hispanics beyond its most loyal Cuban-American bloc, to include Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and others who are not as solidly Republican. At the same time, many conservative voters oppose anything that would make it easier for illegal immigrants to assimilate into society.
A Bush spokesman said it is “absolutely not true” that the governor supports the change for political reasons.
“This is a policy that balances public safety with the everyday need to drive,” said spokesman Jacob DiPietre.
But Bush soon realized that the plan is controversial.
What happened the governor is similar to the experience of his brother, President Bush, whose proposal to issue three-year renewable guest-worker visas for undocumented immigrants hit a wall of opposition in Congress.
Florida sheriffs blitzed senators with faxes, saying the driver’s license idea was hastily conceived and a threat to domestic security.
Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter said it was unreliable to allow illegal immigrants to acquire Florida drivers’ licenses based on ID cards from their countries of origin.
He said documents such as Mexico’s Matricula Consular cards are “suspect,” and would create the “illusion of legitimacy.”
He sent senators a critical FBI intelligence review of Mexico’s card issuance system.
“This illusion of legitimacy would allow terrorists to embed themselves in mainstream America with all of the civil liberties afforded to legitimate residents, visitors and citizens,” Hunter wrote in a position paper circulated to senators on Monday.
David Skovholt of the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center in Miami described Hunter as “notoriously anti-immigrant.”
“The problem of people driving without licenses is a huge problem in Florida,” Skovholt said. “This bill would allow more people to become licensed drivers who are contributing, taxpaying members of our state.”
The center released a list of police chiefs and sheriffs from dozens of cities and counties who support granting drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants. The list includes officials from police agencies in Atlanta, Memphis, Minneapolis, New Haven, Los Angeles and Sacramento.
Garcia said he wants to proceed slowly, and he urged lawmakers and the media to avoid calling the non-citizens “illegal aliens.” But opposition is growing.
Senators said the calls and e-mails to their offices showed the issue has struck an emotional chord.
“This bill has really pushed a button with people in this state,” said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. “What I’m hearing from everyone is, how can you condone the fact that they’re here illegally by giving them a license?”
Another critic, Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said: “My district does not want to create incentives for people to break our laws.”
A third Republican on the transportation committee, Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, said he also is opposed.
“If someone has attached to their status “illegal,’ it means they’ve done something wrong,” Webster said. Licensing those drivers “sends a message that it’s okay to not play by the rules,” he said.
Gov. Bush didn’t mention the driver’s license proposal as he rallied Hispanics in Orlando to support his brother’s re-election as president.
Flanked by a Mariachi band and “Viva Bush” banners, the governor focused on his brother’s support of traditional values, appointing Hispanics to key administration positions, cutting taxes and protecting the nation. Bush also criticized Democratic candidate John Kerry for being out of touch with working families.
— Times staff writers Joni James and Adam C. Smith and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.