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Driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants narrowly approved

Merrill Balassoneby Merrill Balassone
Forty-nine percent of Californians said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to obtain special driver’s licenses. (Photo/Myriam Thyes)
Forty-nine percent of Californians said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to obtain special driver’s licenses. (Photo/Myriam Thyes)

By a slim margin, Californians approve of the new state law granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, according to the latest results of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll.

Conducted from Oct. 30 to Nov. 5, the poll found that 49 percent of Californians were in favor of allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain special driver’s licenses, compared to 47 percent who opposed. Among Latino voters, 69 percent supported with 28 percent opposed. Forty-four percent of white voters were in favor with 53 percent opposed.

California became the 10th state to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses after Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 60 into law last month.

When asked about the issue in 2003 after then-Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, 63 percent of likely voters said they disapproved. The law was later repealed after Davis was recalled.

“Gray Davis was removed from office at least in part because he signed a bill granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” said Dan Schnur, director of the poll and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “The shift in public opinion over 10 years has been remarkable.”

Californians also feel strongly about protecting undocumented immigrants from retaliation by employers, the poll showed.

A majority of Californians said they were in favor of prohibiting employers from threatening to report the immigration status of employees who speak out about workplace abuses, unsafe working conditions and wage theft — legislation signed into law last month by Brown. Fifty-four percent of voters were in favor of this new legislation, and 35 percent opposed it. Latino voters favored the law 58-36 and white voters 53-35.

When asked about a new law requiring that domestic workers get paid overtime if they work more than nine hours per day or 45 hours per week, 78 percent of Californians were in favor with 16 percent opposed.

“People view this more as a human argument than a politically based or immigration policy argument, and that’s why you see such high, intense support for the measure,” said Drew Lieberman, vice president of Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which conducted the poll with Republican polling firm American Viewpoint on behalf of USC and the Los Angeles Times.

But Californians had mixed feelings when asked about other immigration measures.

A plurality of Californians, 48 percent, oppose the so-called Trust Act, recently signed into law, which restricts county jail officials from detaining immigrants without serious criminal records on behalf of federal immigration authorities. Forty-six percent said they are in favor of the law. Latino voters favored the Trust Act 54-41 while white voters were split 44-49.

“Californians are extremely welcoming and supportive of undocumented immigrants and their families, but they still have concerns about individuals — documented or not — who committed crimes,” Schnur said.

Californians were largely opposed to undocumented immigrants working in polling stations or practicing law.

Just 38 percent of voters said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to practice law once they pass the state bar exam, with 57 percent opposed. Latino voters were in favor, 65-30, and white voters were largely opposed, 26-68.

In addition, 35 percent of voters said undocumented immigrants should be able to serve on juries, while 60 percent disagreed. Latino voters were in favor by a slim margin, 49-44, with white voters opposed, 31-65.

“Californians really don’t want to be punitive toward illegal immigrants, but voters were very much against having illegal immigrants as part of the legal process, such as practicing law,” said David Kanevsky, research director for American Viewpoint.

“Even while the immigration debate in Washington, D.C., has become completely gridlocked,” Schnur said, “it’s worth noting how far California has moved beyond that basic question of citizenship to more specific matters.”

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