A freshman Republican in the California State Senate is pushing against the grain to change his party’s congressional position on immigration reform.
“The bipartisan support of AB 60 shows that the tide is changing on immigration reform and Congress should pay attention,” Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford told Capitol Weekly, referring to landmark legislation that allows undocumented immigrants the right to obtain driver’s licenses.
Vidak was one of only two Senate Republicans — the other was Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres — to vote in favor of the bill, which passed by the Legislature last week. Gov. Brown is expected to sign the measure.
In the final hours of session it was too close to call whether the bill would emerge at all, but in the end, it passed handily — 28-8 in the Senate and 55-20 in the Assembly.
The two Republican senators who favored the bill are representatives of areas in the Central Valley with a heavy Latino constituencies, and both senators also pushed Congress in letters this week calling for action on overall immigration reform.
A letter to Republican members of Congress — authored by Cannella and signed by fifteen Republican state lawmakers — was notably deficient of Vidak’s signature.
Instead, Senate newbie Vidak sent a separate letter on his own, addressed to all of California’s congressional members not solely the GOP, urging bipartisan effort for immigration reform.
“California is home to many immigrants and they make important contributions to our economy, particularly in agricultural areas like the Central Valley,” said Vidak in a letter to the California Congressional Delegation. “I am asking that you quickly come to a consensus and immediately enact meaningful immigration reform. The future prosperity of California depends on it.”
“California is America only faster,” said Dan Schnur, formerly a Republican Party strategist who is now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “This represents a huge shift from the early to mid 1990s, national political leaders can learn from California’s lessons in order to resolve the issue in Washington.”
In the past two decades, legislative efforts have repeatedly been made to do what the Legislature finally approved Friday. Undocumented residents in California will now have the ability to drive legally — if Brown signs it.
Former Sen. Gil Cedillo — known in the Capitol as “One Bill Gil” for his dedication to immigrants’ drivers licenses and now serving on the Los Angeles City Council — carried an immigrant driver’s license bill like Assemblyman Luis Alejo’s, D-Watsonville, nine times.
“Usually the concern for the bill, when Cedillo was pushing it, was issues from the right and concerns from Republicans,” Mike Madrid of Grassroots Lab said. “What was holding the bill last night was actually concerns from organized labor, that’s a profound difference. It’s a profound change for California, it’s a profound change for the Latino caucus and it’s a profound change for all Republicans serving California.”
Gov. Brown had requested an amendment, in compliance with federal law, for the licenses to carry a mark signifying it may only be used for driving purposes.
This caused late controversy among the bill’s original supporters and the Latino Caucus.
“It took 20 years to get to that point,” said Madrid. “What was holding [this bill] up was not Republicans, which is usually the case—it was the exact opposite.”
Immigrant-rights groups argued the mark would lead to discrimination for those who are undocumented, and Alejo was expected to hold his bill until next year.
But after opposition subsided, he ultimately championed the bill in the Assembly. He also praised Cedillo’s longtime efforts and dedicated the final night of session to the councilman’s late father.
In a statement released soon after the Legislature approved AB 60, the governor said he hoped this would be a message for Washington of the long past-due need for immigration reform.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected only 10 years ago for governor, as an advocate for withholding diver’s licenses from undocumented immigrants,” Schnur said. “Since then, a bipartisan majority in the Legislature has voted to not follow his lead on the issue. This is a remarkably fast turn-around.”