PITTSBURGH – Democrat John Kerry (search) said he opposes state laws that give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, a position that puts him at odds with the Hispanic activists he is courting in the presidential race.
Immigrant advocates have been pushing for the laws, saying they help undocumented workers (search) get around safely. Licensed drivers know the rules of the road and can buy insurance, making streets safer for everyone, they say.
Shortly after Kerry told the National Council of La Raza (search) on Tuesday that he would make immigration reform a top priority to ease the path to citizenship for working immigrants, he took a tougher stance on the issue of driver's licenses in an interview with the Spanish-language network Telemundo.
"I think that driver's licenses are part of the legality of being here and if you've been here a period of time we may work something out as part of that immigration process, but I wouldn't give somebody who is automatically one year in here illegally all the rights and privileges of being here legally," Kerry said in the interview.
"I think that's wrong. That defeats the purposes of the law," he said.
Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, said Wednesday that Kerry's comments "somewhat undercut" his well-received speech before her organization.
"Let me take a deep breath here," Munoz said after hearing about Kerry's comments, then paused before continuing. "I guess what's frustrating is that Senator Kerry was just at our conference making terrific proposals that would benefit the immigrant community. ... This stand is going to be much less well received."
Munoz said driver's licenses have nothing to do with granting legal status or protecting against terrorism, as other opponents of the laws have suggested.
"This is one of those issues that affect people every day in their day to day lives," Munoz said.
Kerry spokesman David Wade said Wednesday that Kerry thinks it is a state responsibility to decide who gets a driver's license. Wade said Kerry would not support any federal efforts to stop states from giving them to illegal immigrants.
President Bush's re-election campaign did not return telephone calls about his position on the issue. Bush also is campaigning for the Hispanic vote, which went for Democrat Al Gore, 62 percent to 35 percent, in the 2000 race.
Bush's brother, Republican Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (search), supported a bill to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. But the bill's sponsor abandoned the measure last April after law enforcement officials raised security concerns.
California was set to allow driver's licenses for illegal immigrants this year, until the legislation became an issue in the state's gubernatorial recall election. Despite protests from immigrant communities, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a measure repealing the law shortly after taking office last November. But he currently is working with the sponsor of the original bill on another plan to grant driving privileges to illegal immigrants.
About a dozen other states allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses, according to the National Immigration Law Center.
Adam J. Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University, said while some community leaders may criticize Kerry's stance on driver's licenses, he wins points for advocating legalization for immigrant workers and other programs to support their families.
"I wouldn't expect Kerry's stance on this issue would strongly influence whether Latinos support him or President Bush in November," Segal said.
As part of his immigration plan, Kerry said he would offer a reform bill in his first 100 days to allow immigrants to earn legalization, encourage family reunification and strengthen border protections. Wade said Kerry wants to "fix the system as a whole rather than addressing issues piecemeal."
"Everyone who gets legal status of course should get driver's licenses," Wade said. "But there are safety and other concerns with giving driver's licenses to anybody and everybody without broader reform."