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Gil Cedillo and the Fight to Return Driver’s Licenses to Undocumented Immigrants

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Samanta Helou Hernandez

Gil Cedillo was better known for many years as the man who pursued a bill that seemed impossible to achieve: driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

But his crusade for immigrants started many years before when he was the President of Local 660 of the Service Employee International Union (SEIU), a public sector union in which the Boyle Heights native did not come in much contact with newer immigrant workers.

But in 1994, he heard many of his friends who were pro-immigrant activists when they all went to college together talk about a voter initiative that was coming to the ballot: Proposition 187, the Save Our State initiative, and his union friends Joel and Kathy Ochoa told him about a grassroots protest going on downtown.

“And so I remember driving there to see this, and I was impressed by how large the march was, with no publicity and the lack of infrastructure for that size of the march,” he remembers. "They didn't have a stage or a large P.A. System. It seemed odd.”

The march was put together by activists from a nonprofit civic organization, One Stop Immigration, to oppose an initiative that sought to take away benefits from undocumented immigrants. And he knew one of these activist-organizers: Juan José Gutiérrez.

"So I invited him to my office on a Saturday, and we talked about how we could help and what I thought were the advantages of working with labor,” Cedillo says, now 25 years from that day.

That's when Cedillo met Kevin de León and Fabián Núñez, two young organizers working for One Stop and helping organize the community against the ballot initiative. By then, Cedillo was already powerful, he headed one of the nation's largest unions, but not everyone in that union thought it was a good idea to join this fight for immigrants.

“Many unions were not very pro-immigrant or very progressive. There were internal battles,” he says.

Today, Cedillos sees this as a turning point, not just for the immigrant rights movement but for labor.

“It was a historic moment, where both of these intersected on behalf of their interests,” he adds.

Cedillo came both from immigrant and union stock. He grew up in the Boyle Heights community of Los Angeles and attended Roosevelt High School. He graduated with a B.A. in sociology in 1977 and a law degree from the People's College of Law in 1983.

His father worked as a mechanic at American Can in Vernon and was a member of the United Steelworkers of America. His mother was a garment worker at Sears.

In college, he was part of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MECHA).

He started at Local 660 in 1990. When 187 came about, he had already been there for four years and worked to elect pro-union candidates to office. The union was highly active in the political arena. It was getting ready to work on the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Kathleen Brown, who was competing against incumbent governor Pete Wilson.

But at the sight of what was going on with his former classmate and the initiative he considered anti-immigrant and offensive made him re-assess his work.

Cedillo helped the group secure resources to get their biggest march together, put up a decent stage with a good P.A. system, publicized the effort, mobilized labor union members and others.  Many elected officials and union leaders, including in his own, were not in favor of the effort.

“It was difficult for me personally at the time not to have the full support of the union. It was disconcerting, but not discouraging,” he adds.

The march he helped put together was historic. In addition, it led to more unions recognizing that immigrant workers were organizable and that they were the future of the growth of the union movement.

Two years after 187, he was pushed out of the union. He worked briefly for the United Food and Commercial Workers, but in 1997, he ran for the state legislature and was elected to the state assembly seat left by Louis Caldera, who actually sponsored a bill to take away driver’s licenses from undocumented immigrants.

In meetings within his district, he would hear from immigrants who got their car towed for not having a driver’s license. Activists started asking for a move on this issue, and Cedillo commenced a crusade to get driver’s licenses.  The bill (AB60) was finally signed into law by Governor Brown on October 3, 2013, nine months after he termed out of state office.

In 2002, he was elected to the State Senate, where he worked on other issues like expanding access to health care, developing regional solutions to combat homelessness, and encouraging economic development in his downtown Los Angeles district.

He was re-elected in 2006 and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2009. Then, he went back to the assembly in 2010 and became chairman of California's Latino Legislative Caucus.

In 2011, Cedillo authored a pair of assembly bills to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain financial aid for universities through both private and public sources. The assembly bills, known as AB 130 and AB 131 for private and public financial aid respectively, became law.

He was termed out of the state legislature in 2012 and ran for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council representing the city's most immigrant and diverse district: District 1.

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