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.
Moreno is a burly man, with a dark mustache and thick bristles of gray hair that stand at attention. He's spent most of his adult life working long hours for a modest living. In Mexico, he worked in a Japanese factory, making bags for rice and flour. Twenty-six years ago, he moved to California from Jalisco, and in 1995 settled in Phoenix, where he does carpentry work at J&A Oak, a west Phoenix furniture factory.
Despite spending half of his life in the United States, he still speaks only Spanish, employing a soft, slow cadence that reflects not only his self-effacing manner, but also his careful determination to choose the right words.
Moreno is not a political activist by nature, but he felt so strongly about the driver's license bill that he decided to join the demonstration outside the Capitol.
"I drive and have insurance and I want others to also have the same rights that I do," he says. "I want these people, if they have an accident -- and hopefully they won't -- to be able to legitimately file a complaint and be protected under the law. I think everyone would want insurance so that they can rest assured."
Defenders of the current law find this line of thinking implausible at best. They question why someone who entered the country illegally would suddenly develop a respect for the law. "There's no guarantee that an undocumented immigrant who gets a license would turn around and get insurance," says Greg Patterson, Burns' chief of staff.
Alberto Esparza, a local activist who founded Sí Se Puede -- an organization that encourages community activity among Hispanic youth -- says he's convinced that undocumented immigrants badly want insurance, and refutes the notion that they're trying to use driver's licenses as an entree into a false legitimacy, which will then entitle them to social programs reserved for citizens.
"The community is really concerned because they want to get insurance and they want to obey the law," Esparza says. "People who don't see the issues say, "The next thing you know, they'll want to vote.' They're fearful of the community, because the Hispanic community has grown by leaps and bounds, and it's starting to organize."
Moreno contends that the law has encouraged discrimination against Hispanics at the state Motor Vehicle Division. He says when he applied for an Arizona license, he was asked to provide at least four pieces of identification, despite the fact that state law requires only two documents.
"I showed them three ID's," he says. "My social security card, my permanent-resident card and my ID card. And they asked for more identification, like my bank card or anything else."
Phoenix attorney Stephen Montoya says he's currently handling five incidents of alleged Motor Vehicle Division discrimination that have occurred in the past four months. Montoya says two of the five cases involved people who had green cards -- work-authorization documents provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- and provided them to MVD employees as proof of legal residency.
"The individuals at the MVD looked at the green card and thought that it looked fabricated," Montoya says. "Consequently, they seized it and would not give it back. In fact, after many telephone calls and much anguish and a few threats, the MVD conceded that they were authentic and returned them. By that point, one of the men had lost nearly a month of work without his green card."
Montoya says two other clients, both recently naturalized citizens with California driver's licenses, had their green cards and California licenses seized by the MVD.
Perhaps the strangest case concerns a lifelong American citizen in his early 20s, who was born in Nogales, Arizona. Montoya says an MVD employee did not accept the young man's birth certificate, so he returned with a certified copy of it. Again, it was rejected. He still does not have a driver's license.
Montoya lays at least part of the blame on a system that has forced MVD workers to become de facto INS agents, by trying to determine who fits the profile of an American citizen.
"All of these people have the demeanor of being Mexican nationals," Montoya explains. "You can kind of tell who a Hispanic is or who a Mexican-American is, because they have the demeanor of an American. They dress differently, they speak differently. These folks are either from Mexico or from that pocket of the United States that is culturally more akin to Mexico. They look Mexican."
Montoya suggests that such incidents probably would not have occurred under the MVD's pre-1996 regulations.
"Before this law, there was really no pretext upon which to base these inquiries," he says. "That's where all these problems arose: the quest to ascertain whether or not someone is a lawful resident. And, really, these folks at the MVD are not poised to make that determination. And moreover, they probably don't have jurisdiction to make that determination, because the federal government has absolute jurisdiction over immigration matters."
Montoya says he's hoping to avoid a lawsuit by getting MVD to agree that what it's doing is wrong, adding that he's confident the situation can be resolved with an MVD promise to stop the practice.
Cydney DeModica, an MVD spokeswoman, would not comment on the specifics of Montoya's cases, but said, "It's not our list [of documents]. The law provides us the list that MVD has to go by in order to issue licenses. It's very difficult to have MVD employees put in a position where they're trying to communicate with people who may not have the documents."
Of course, the Motor Vehicle Division wouldn't be put in such a tough position if the proof-of-residency law didn't exist.
"It's what's making them crack down on people," Montoya says. "It's just a dumb law. It's not only a dumb law, it's a dangerous law, because if, in fact, the state doesn't agree to stop doing this, we are going to have to sue the state of Arizona. That's going to cost the taxpayers a lot of money."
Joe Eddie Lopez never had particularly strong feelings about the driver's license issue until three years ago. When the 1996 law came up for a vote in the Legislature, he opposed it, but he knew it was going to pass anyway. And he really didn't know what kind of effect it would have.He says all that changed in 1997, when he started receiving a string of very similar e-mails and letters, with complaints that he'd never heard before.
Two families from Lopez's neighborhood wrote that they'd been involved in car accidents with undocumented immigrants, and that the immigrants had fled the scene. A woman in Glendale told him that she'd been involved in three separate accidents with uninsured drivers she believed to be undocumented immigrants. In each case, they'd left their cars in the street and run away.
Not long after he began hearing such reports, Lopez's own daughter, Debbie, was hit while driving in central Phoenix. The driver of the other car immediately raced from the scene, leaving her to deal with the cost of the accident. Lopez heard through the neighborhood grapevine that the passengers in the other car had been illegal aliens.
"Of course, we had to pay the deductible and got an insurance increase along with it," he says. "And the other families did as well. After that, I made some announcements at public meetings and found that there were similar experiences out there. So I decided to do something about it."
The 60-year-old Lopez is a political realist, and he recognizes the uphill battle involved in trying to win statewide support for a bill that would seemingly sanction illegal immigration. That's why he's quick to emphasize that he's not involved in the issue out of sympathy for the immigrant population, but because he believes that American citizens and legal residents are the primary victims of the current law.
"Prior to this law taking effect in 1996, one seldom heard of a problem where someone had an accident and somebody took off," Lopez says.
"The reason is that the vast majority of people had insurance," he adds, though acknowledging that no conclusive data supports this view.
"The talk-show people are talking it up as if I was intending to just start handing out driver's licenses to anybody that requested it, as if they didn't have to pass a test and everything else," he says. "That's one stupid thing about it. As it is, people get a fraudulent license, and then everybody can drive, whether they've passed a test and know the rules or not."
Most states don't require proof of residency to get a driver's license. Arizona is one of only six states that have such a law (the most recent convert, Texas, enacted its proof-of-residency requirement a year ago through state Department of Public Safety rules, without open debate or advance public notice).
California's has been in place for seven years, nearly twice as long as Arizona's. It has been the blueprint Arizona has followed on this issue.
Many of the same complaints voiced by Arizona's Hispanic community have been aired in California. But the problem has reached even further -- into California's multinational business community. Scott Keane, a California attorney who has worked to repeal the law on behalf of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California, says the state's driver's license law is the biggest source of irritation among Japanese businessmen who spend time in California.
He says Japanese multinational companies send CEOs and other business leaders to the U.S. on a rotation basis, and that they've had to renew their provisional driving permits every time their temporary visas get extended. He describes their treatment by California motor vehicle employees as "pure harassment that's resulted in complete chaos."
Keane says the law has cost California up to $7 million in processing expenses. He adds that the law has not achieved its stated purpose, because eligibility for social services in California -- as in Arizona -- is not tied to a driver's license.
"It's insane to try to regulate social services through a driver's license law," Keane says. "If you care about victims, and you care about being competitive in the global marketplace, don't follow California's example."
Keane says he doesn't think a similar law would pass the California Assembly today, "but repealing it once it's on the books is hard."
The major force behind California's repeal effort has been Senator Hilda Solis, recent winner of the Kennedy family's annual Profile in Courage award, for her environmental activism on behalf of largely Hispanic neighborhoods. But, in this case, Solis has focused most of her attention on the plight of Japanese businessmen, knowing that it's an approach most likely to sway skeptical Republicans.
One of those skeptical Republicans is California Senator Richard Mountjoy, who earned national attention by co-authoring Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that sought to deny social services to undocumented immigrants.
Last year, Mountjoy told the Los Angeles Times: "There's no good reason to give driver's licenses to people who are here illegally. They ought to put them in a bus, drive them to the border and send them home."
Mountjoy also dismissed the notion that illegals are here anyway, so they might as well get licenses. "That's like saying, "People are smoking dope anyhow, so let's make it not a crime.'"
Arizona Republicans opposed to Lopez's bill make another persuasive argument. They say that a repeal of the 1996 proof-of-residency law could actually cost this state some of its federal funding.
Greg Patterson, who's studied the issue on behalf of Brenda Burns, says $230 million a year in funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program -- created in 1996 to soften the blow of welfare reform -- are potentially at risk. He says the funds are contingent upon Arizona meeting TANF requirements that driver's license applicants be asked for their social security numbers, so that they can be checked against a federal database of parents who have failed to pay child support.
Repeal supporters in Arizona see the TANF issue as a scare tactic without merit, but Patterson's contention is supported by Michael Kharfen, spokesman for the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
"If somebody owes child support and their social security number matches from their driver's license application, they don't get a license," Kharfen says. "It's the most effective way we have to get them to pay, and it's the easiest way for us to track people who move from state to state."
Even more problematic for Lopez than the potential loss of TANF money is the fact that his position is based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence. There is no data to support his major thesis: that hit-and-run accidents involving uninsured motorists have proliferated in Arizona over the past four years.
To the degree that such information exists, it doesn't support Lopez's theory.
Frederikson says that Arizona insurance companies are able to track the percentage of car accidents that involve uninsured motorists, and that the current rate of 16 percent is actually slightly lower than it was four years ago. But he concedes that providing an accurate estimate of the state's uninsured population is extremely difficult, particularly because the state doesn't know exactly how many undocumented immigrants are driving on a regular basis.
Lopez and other proponents of changing the law say they know they have to improve their strategy.
"It's a matter of getting the message out," Lopez says, "that this is not a step to encourage more mass illegal movement into this state, but to protect the citizens of this state."Most states don't require proof of residency to get a driver's license.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.