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Last February, 500 fired-up Valley Latinos tried to squeeze into a legislative hearing room that typically holds no more than 200. By the time the state Senate transportation committee began debating, the crowd had spilled out of the room to the hallway, past the lobby, and outside the doors of the Capitol building.They'd all come to try to convince lawmakers to change the Arizona law that prohibits undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses. Since 1996, the state has required driver's license applicants to show proof of residency.
The issue may seem simple to the casual political observer. Why should illegal immigrants be allowed to get driver's licenses? They are, after all, in this country illegally, and a driver's license smacks of legitimacy.
But the law has become a lightning rod for Latinos in Arizona, who believe it is fueling discrimination against all Hispanics in this state. They also contend the law is costing law-abiding citizens money because the number of uninsured motorists has climbed in Arizona since undocumented aliens have been unable to get licenses and therefore unable to get auto insurance.
"There is probably no issue more dominant in our community than this one, besides educational issues," says state Senator Joe Eddie Lopez, a Phoenix Democrat who sponsored the bill that would have eliminated the proof-of-residency requirement. More than 16,000 Arizona residents signed a petition early this year in support of the bill.
Lopez's theory goes something like this: Undocumented immigrants are here, whether we like it or not, and they're driving on a regular basis. They'd like to buy car insurance, but they can't, because the state won't allow them to get a driver's license. They end up paying $1,000 for phony licenses, and when they get into an accident, they inevitably flee the scene because they're afraid of being caught without insurance. And when cops try to sort things out, they don't have license numbers or any other information to help them with their investigations.
Lopez says these problems were not prevalent until the 1996 proof-of-residency law attempted to fix what wasn't broken.
His argument is a tough sell. There are no statistics, no accident records and no insurance industry studies to back up his contentions. So it's hardly a surprise that, outside of the Hispanic community, the cause remains an orphan.
Opponents of any change in the law say providing a license to an undocumented immigrant is an oxymoronic policy -- putting a government stamp of legality on illegal activity. And they say it could jeopardize millions of dollars in federal funding for Arizona. Moreover, they're just not convinced it would solve the problem of uninsured drivers.
"The real problem in this state is people driving with revoked licenses, and those licenses were revoked because of very serious offenses," says Jim Frederikson, executive director of the Arizona Insurance Information Association. "So those people shouldn't be driving. If I wanted to reduce the uninsured population, that would be the first place I'd start."
The 1996 proof-of-residency provision is a copycat of a law passed in California three years earlier. Both states were experiencing a wave of anti-immigration sentiment, and the driver's license issue seemed to be an easy way to silence those who feared that undocumented aliens were taking advantage of the state's social services.
Coincidentally, the debate has heated up again in both states within the last year. In California, the legislature passed a bill last September that would have eased restrictions on immigrants obtaining licenses. But California Governor Gray Davis vetoed the measure.
But California activists who want to repeal their proof-of-residency law have a lot more ammunition to work with than Lopez and his Arizona cohorts. The Los Angeles Police Protective League -- which represents more than 10,000 officers -- has come out in support of repeal. In addition, the effort has won the backing of insurance groups, unions and car dealers.
Lopez can't count on police support here, though. "It isn't anything that we've really focused on," says Tony Morales, a spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department. "I know, from what I hear and see, that hit-and-run accidents have been on the increase for a long time. But whether or not that has anything to do with this issue, I really don't know."
Still, when Lopez's bill came before the Senate transportation committee earlier this year, lawmakers voted 5-1 to send it on to the full Senate for consideration.
Some politicians say the bill passed because committee members knew Senate President Brenda Burns was going to kill it anyway, which she ultimately did, despite the presence of nearly 2,000 demonstrators who camped outside the Capitol for three straight days in early March.
One committee aide, who asked not to be identified, even contends that committee Republicans, faced with a full house of intense Latinos, passed the bill because they "were afraid they'd be killed if they voted against it."
That sentiment may serve to underscore another point that Hispanic activists are raising: that Arizona political leaders have little understanding of the Latino community, especially one that is growing more politically zealous by the day.
Refugio Moreno can understand both sides of the driver's license debate.The 51-year-old Jalisco, Mexico, native is a legal resident -- though not a citizen -- who has had an American driver's license for more than two decades. But his wife, some family members and many of his closest friends are here illegally.