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Sheriff Baca backs driver's licenses for illegal immigrants

Photo: Sheriff Lee Baca. Credit: Los Angeles TimesLos Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he supports the idea of allowing illegal immigrants to have driver's licenses as long as they have been in the United States for a number of years without committing other crimes.

Baca's comments Thursday come as Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck has also expressed support for driver's license for illegal immigrants.

Baca said such licenses should only be issued after illegal immigrants fill out comprehensive applications, similar to those for citizenship. The sheriff also said the licenses should be up for renewal annually, and be noticeably different than those issued to citizens.

"There's enough potential for Chief Beck's idea for it to be explored," Baca said Thursday.

The sheriff has expressed openness to illegal immigrants being issued driver’s licenses before. In 2002, he supported a proposal to allow the licenses, but to imprint them with a special marker such as the letter “I” for immigrant so police could determine immediately if they were dealing with someone in the country illegally.

At the time, the sheriff was the head of a task force helping then-Gov. Gray Davis craft a plan to allow certain unlawful immigrants to get licenses, a proposal that eventually was scuttled.

Baca emphasized then that many illegal immigrants were already driving without having passed a driver's test or buying auto insurance.

"At some point in time, we will allow illegal immigrants to have a driver's license as long as they are trustworthy and non-criminal people," Baca said at the time.

In an interview Thursday, Baca said he felt the campaign for licenses a decade ago failed because it was not restrictive enough about what types of illegal immigrants it would have applied to.

"You can't do this en masse and make the average citizen happy," he said.

Baca said he believes the larger issue is finding a way to regulate and legalize more immigrant labor. He said if a "sensible" push for licenses gets going in L.A. County, he would join the effort.

Beck said he expected the number of hit-and-run accidents would decrease if illegal immigrants were licensed, because they would not have to fear being caught without a license at accidents.

Beck's stance is certain to further inflame critics who are already angry at the chief for his efforts to liberalize rules on how his officers impound the cars of unlicensed drivers.

On Wednesday, Beck said he does not believe licenses for illegal immigrants should be identical to standard licenses, saying "it could be a provisional license, it could be a non-resident license." He acknowledged that state officials would have to find ways to address widely held concerns that giving licenses to people who are in the country illegally could make it easier for terrorists to go undetected.

Such concerns, however, were outweighed for Beck by what he said would be improved safety on California's roads and the ability of police to identify the people they encounter. "Why wouldn't you want to put people through a rigorous testing process? Why wouldn't you want to better identify people who are going to be here?" he said.

In a brief interview Wednesday, Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich joined Beck, calling it "a matter of public safety." Issuing licenses to illegal immigrants, he said, would help ensure that people on the road were capable drivers, although he added that insurance regulations would need to be tightened to combat uninsured drivers. Trutanich said he first voiced his position on licenses last year in La Opinion.

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Photo: Sheriff Lee Baca. Credit: Los Angeles Times

 
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