California voters want driver's licenses, other privileges for illegal immigrants

02/22/2013 12:00 AM

01/29/2014 7:44 AM

Californians in record numbers want to grant driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, not charge them extra for college, and offer a path to citizenship, a new Field Poll shows.

Attitudes are changing fast: This marks the first time a majority of voters have turned thumbs-up on driver's licenses since the Field Poll began asking the question in 2005.

But voters indicated the welcome mat should extend only to immigrants already living in the state.

"Voters are in favor of liberalizing some of the laws toward undocumented immigrants, but at the same time, they don't want to diminish border control," said Mark DiCamillo, Field Poll director.

Californians still believe that too many people have entered the state illegally, he said.

"But so many live here now who are in limbo in terms of their legal status that the public is coming around to the view that we have to attend to that," DiCamillo said.

A majority of California voters support increasing the number of federal border agents and imposing stiff penalties on anyone who hires illegal immigrants, the poll found.

The survey comes at a time when both major political parties are courting support from Latinos, who are expected to constitute a majority of California's population by 2025.

Embracing longtime residents who entered the country illegally is not new, but the trends are steady and reaching substantial proportions.

Nine of every 10 voters support creating a path to citizenship; 76 percent support temporary worker programs; 60 percent, residency college tuition; and 52 percent, driver's licenses.

Former lawmaker Gilbert Cedillo, a Los Angeles Democrat who tried unsuccessfully for nearly a decade to give undocumented drivers the legal right to drive, applauded the poll results but said he's not surprised by them.

The issue has been a lightning rod for divisiveness, but that is changing now as leaders of both major parties beat the drum for immigration reform, Cedillo said.

Offering a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have lived in California for a number of years, have a job, learned English and paid back taxes is supported across the board: 95 percent of Democrats, 81 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of other voters backed the concept, DiCamillo said.

"The viewpoint, I believe, of most Californians is that immigrants are hardworking," Cedillo said, adding that almost everyone knows a landscaper, restaurant worker, child care provider, or some other laborer who was not born in California but has lived a productive life in the state.

New legislation to grant driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants was proposed recently. Assembly Bill 60 would qualify anyone who has a federal taxpayer identification number or "any other document" that the Department of Motor Vehicles finds "clearly establishes the identity of the applicant."

The issue of driver's licenses remains highly partisan: 66 percent of Democrats support it, but only 27 percent of Republicans do.

Lionel Bell, a 79-year-old Sacramentan surveyed by the Field Poll, said he could support granting driver's licenses and citizenship to undocumented immigrants only if they are longtime residents.

"If they've been here for 10 years or something like that, with no problems, they're not criminals, they're working, paying their taxes – certainly, give them an opportunity. Why not?" said Bell, a Democrat and retired state worker.

Bobby Loyd, 82, turned thumbs down on driver's licenses but says he "100 percent" favors providing a pathway to citizenship.

The nation was created on a foundation of embracing newcomers and "we were all illegal at one time, our folks were," said Loyd, a retired Bakersfield resident who once worked in manufacturing.

Loyd said he supports border control, but added, "We've got enough laws already passed if we just enforce the ones we've already got."

Carol Kincaid, a Sacramento Republican who said she's "in my 60s," said she supports setting performance standards for a path to citizenship, not just rubber-stamping any longtime resident.

"I think everyone has the right to a better place, but I think you need to do it the right way," said Kincaid, a retired state worker.

Like a majority of Californians, Kincaid wants to see the state's borders protected from illegal immigration – but she isn't sure how.

"I don't know what the solution is – you'd think they would have done it by now if there was one," she said.

Increasing the number of federal border agents is favored by 65 percent of voters; imposing stiff penalties on employers of undocumented immigrants, 57 percent; building more border fences, 46 percent; and continuing to have federal agents round up, detain and deport illegal immigrants, 46 percent.

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