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Kerry position on licenses irks Latino activists

PITTSBURGH -- Democrat John F. Kerry 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 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 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.

''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 yesterday 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. ''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.

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