California Firefighter Mourned a Year Later

Mario Cunha first met Jesse Casillas while they were showing off their customized Honda Civics at local car shows almost 15 years ago.

The incident dramatically illustrates the growing debate over immigration policies in the United States and the controversy over whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to have state driver's licenses while living in California. It also unleashed a renewed local awareness over the issue of firefighter safety, an awareness that could lead to new local policies.

During emotional testimony earlier this month, Cunha's family and others who loved him said they are bitter the driver of the car that struck him was an undocumented immigrant without a license.

"There was a clear chain of actions, a pattern of disregard for this country, a pattern of disregard for the law and a pattern of disregard for life," said Marrielle Krause-Lucido, Cunha's sister-in-law. "She is an illegal alien and we need to know that they're here and they understand our laws."

To qualify for a license, drivers must prove they are aware of the rules of the road, Krause-Lucido said.

By coming to the United States illegally and by driving without a license, Zarco showed "complete disregard for the laws of the country," said Sal Lucido, Cunha's cousin and adopted brother. "Her actions are inexcusable."

In response, Zarco's attorney contends that a California Highway Patrol officer's failure to secure the roadway while firefighters were trying to quell the blaze was the primary factor leading to the accident.

But the attorney, Eugene Martinez of Salinas, also noted that recent efforts to educate and license illegal immigrants have failed in California.

"Ms. Zarco, an undocumented worker, would have loved the opportunity to take the training and tests to get a driver's license, but a law that would have allowed her to do so was repealed in Sacramento in order to deter terrorists from getting driver's licenses in California," Martinez said in court documents filed last week.

The arguments in the hot-button issue of licenses for immigrants run both ways.

Like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who repealed a law last year that would have given licenses to illegal immigrants, many Californians believe that people who have come to the United States illegally should not be extended the same opportunities and services available to citizens.

A Field Poll released this month shows that 62 percent of Californians surveyed oppose legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses.

But activists argue that illegal immigrants will continue to drive because they need to get to work and that providing licenses will ensure that at least some of them will have a working knowledge of traffic laws.

In the contentious debate over driver's licenses, Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, has been the champion for undocumented immigrants.

Cedillo is sponsoring legislation that would allow people living in Monterey County without proper documentation to apply for licenses. Cedillo argues that the roads would be safer if at least some of the estimated 2 million undocumented immigrants were trained and insured.

In Monterey County, up to 50,000 undocumented workers show up every spring for the agriculture season. That figure does not include an unknown number of illegal immigrants who live in the county full time.

Though they are here illegally, undocumented workers are key to California businesses that rely on low-paid workers, according to Cedillo and his supporters. Local police agencies are charged with the responsibility of enforcing federal immigration laws, but chasing down illegals is a relatively low priority in most jurisdictions, which are not reimbursed by the federal government to enforce those laws.

The reality, Cedillo argues, is that until immigration laws are enforced, undocumented workers still need to get to their jobs and they will continue to drive. Providing them with driver's licenses will at least guarantee the immigrants have a knowledge of the law and will allow them to obtain car insurance.

But Mike Spence, president of the California Republican Assembly, said there is no guarantee undocumented workers would bother to obtain licenses, even if they are available. If they are here illegally and working low-paid jobs, Spence said, why would they go through the time and expense to get licenses and insurance?