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Gov. Bush backs bill to license illegals

The law would allow illegal immigrants to drive legally in the state. "A policy that ignores them is a policy of denial," Bush says.

Published April 7, 2004

TALLAHASSEE -- One of Arnold Schwarzenegger's first decisions as California governor was to repeal a state law allowing nearly 2-million illegal immigrants to get drivers' licenses.

The move angered the state's large immigrant population, but Schwarzenegger said he would only support a law with safeguards against terrorism. Critics had designed posters showing Osama bin Laden's likeness on a license.

Now, Gov. Jeb Bush says he supports a bill in the Legislature to allow illegal immigrants and foreign nationals in Florida to drive legally -- subject to safeguards that include criminal background checks.

Bush says hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants commute daily to jobs all over the state, many lacking licenses and insurance.

"We shouldn't allow them to come into the country to begin with, but once they're here, what do you do?" Bush asked. "Do you basically say that they're lepers to society? That they don't exist? A policy that ignores them is a policy of denial."

The issue is particularly sensitive in Florida, and not only because of the state's large immigrant population. Many of the 9/11 hijackers legally obtained Florida licenses, and used them to rent cars and hotel rooms and move around Florida without suspicion.

The Florida plan would require immigrants to be fingerprinted and provide a second form of identification, such as an employee ID card. They also would have to prove they own or lease a car and swear they are not convicted felons. A license would be valid for two years, legal only in Florida. Its color would be different from other licenses.

Bush's support for driving privileges for illegal immigrants was welcome news to Aurora Gomez, who was stopped last year for driving with a broken taillight. The mother of three from Dade City nearly faced jail time and certain deportation to Mexico for driving without a license. But a judge allowed her to enter a diversion program where she worked 40 hours in a local park. She said she has not driven since November.

"Wherever I've wanted to go, (friends) have had to take me," Gomez said Tuesday. She also pays for taxis.

Gomez supports her children by cooking for other immigrant workers, which means she does a lot of grocery shopping. The closest supermarket is two miles away.

After the Sept.11 attacks, Florida strictly enforced a 1999 law that required proof of citizenship or "legal presence" in the United States as a condition of getting or renewing a driver's license.

As a result, thousands of illegal immigrants have been driving unlawfully.

"They come to my office," said Rep. Gus Barreiro, R-Miami Beach. "They say they've had their driver's license confiscated because they couldn't show documentation they were a legal resident. They're in limbo."

Barreiro chairs the House Public Safety & Crime Prevention Committee, which plans to consider the legislation as early as next week.

Barreiro said he met two months ago with consulate representatives of six Latin American countries and the head of the state driver's license agency to seek a solution.

The Senate version (SB 1360), sponsored by Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah, passed its first committee last week 13-1. Garcia said he has been lobbied by many in the business community who deal with Latin America to find a way to let illegal immigrants drive legally.

He says it makes sense to license the drivers, to better track their movements.

"Overall, I think this is a better measure for security," Garcia said. "It's a stronger security measure to find out where these people are, where their bank accounts are and asking whether they are a risk to Floridians."

The only senator who voted against the bill, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, said he opposes any efforts to make life easier for illegal immigrants.

"We'd be condoning illegal behavior," Haridopolos said. "I want to make sure people who play by the rules, and come to this country legally, are respected -- and those who are coming illegally are held accountable."

Three months ago, President Bush, the governor's brother, proposed immigration-law changes to allow Mexicans to enter the United States legally if they have jobs waiting for them.

Gov. Bush said calling the Florida plan too lenient on illegal immigrants is off base.

"Florida will have the highest standards for illegal immigrants to be able to get a driver's license," Bush said Monday. "It will require enough information that we're comfortable that the people getting those driver's licenses won't be terrorists."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified April 7, 2004, 01:35:46]

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