Ryan Gabrielson's story on drunk driving checkpoints, which was distributed by California Watch, has generated a lot of heat – and conflicting emotions.
On the one hand, the story has evoked angry comments that using DUI checkpoints to confiscate vehicles driven by unlicensed motorists – many of whom are illegal immigrants – is entirely justified.
Others are expressing outrage that these checkpoints should be used for purposes other than what they were intended to do: trap drunk drivers. (To get the full flavor, check out the comments section of the story on our site, or on those of other papers that carried the story, such as the Sacramento Bee).
What lies behind this controversy is the completely unresolved issue of whether immigrants without legal documents to be in the United States should be granted driver's licenses in California.
Some background on the long history of this issue:
Until 1993, driver's licenses were granted in California without regard to citizenship. But in an effort to deflect some of the anti-immigrant sentiment behind the Proposition 187 campaign that was then in full-swing, Democrats passed a bill in 1993 requiring applicants to provide proof of citizenship in order to get a license.
Almost exactly a decade later – September 5, 2003, – then-Gov. Gray Davis, in the closing weeks of an intense recall campaign, signed legislation authored by Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, granting illegal immigrants the right to a driver's license. But the law never went into effect.
The topic became a hot-button issue during the campaign and Arnold Schwarzenegger made repealing the legislation a major part of his election campaign. One of the new governor's first acts in office was to persuade the Legislature to do exactly that.
Since then, Cedillo has been trying each year to get Schwarzenegger to approve driver's license legislation without any success. The governor has vetoed multiple variations of legislation authored by Cedillo. Today, another bill that he has authored, SB 60, is languishing in the state Assembly Transportation Committee.
Cedillo, often referred to as "One Bill Gill" because of his obsession with the issue, points out that some 2 million undocumented immigrants live in California – which helps explain how police are able to snag so many unlicensed drivers at DUI checkpoints.
"The fundamental problem that faces us is the fact that we do not issue or require immigrants to be tested, licensed and insured," he told me in an interview.
As to the DUI checkpoints program, he said, "We've cast the net too wide, we're wasting resources, and we're wasting money."
Cedillo said he plans to meet with Senate President Darrell Steinberg and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to discuss the impact of the DUI checkpoint program on unlicensed motorists.
"It's an ineffective program and we need to make it more effective," he said.