Saturday, September 6, 2003

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and told cheering supporters, many of them waving flags from Central American countries, that they should be able to drive to jobs.

The signing Friday prompted recall candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger and other critics to accuse the governor of flip-flopping in a ploy to win over Hispanic voters as he fights to keep his job.

For Francisco Zedino, a 42-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, though, the license is important. In the seven years he has lived in the United States, he has had two cars impounded because he was driving without a license, he said.

By bus, it takes an hour for him to reach his job at an East Los Angeles restaurant, he said.

“Hardworking people deserve to have their license,” Mr. Davis said. “Now they can drive to work. They can drive their kids to school. They can drive their parents to the hospital.”

The license initiative, which takes effect Jan. 1, overrides a law passed in a wave of anti-immigration measures in the early 1990s and reflects the growing clout of the Hispanic community.

It will allow illegal immigrants to obtain licenses by submitting a federal taxpayer identification number or other state-approved form of identification instead of a Social Security number.

Critics of the legislation claimed it raises security concerns and said Mr. Davis was pandering to Hispanics, who make up about a third of the population and 16 percent of voters, as he tries to save his job.

They also knocked the governor for signing a bill that did not contain features he demanded earlier, such as requirements that applicants pass criminal background checks and be in the process of obtaining legal documentation.

“As you know, our own governor was vividly against this a few months ago,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said after a speech to the California Chamber of Commerce. “Now it’s election time — of course, everything changes.”

A group of conservative Republicans, including gubernatorial recall candidate Sen. Tom McClintock, planned to launch a ballot initiative to overturn the law, said Jeff Evans, a spokesman for a group called Save Our License.

Mr. Schwarzenegger also said he would work to repeal the law if Mr. Davis is recalled in the Oct. 7 election and voters chose the Republican actor to replace him.

However, Mr. Schwarzenegger also has expressed views that immigrant groups have criticized, such as support for a 1994 ballot initiative that attempted to eliminate some social services for illegal immigrants.

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