Other States Have Mixed Experience With Immigrant Driver’s Licenses

Immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally could soon have the opportunity to drive legally in Illinois. The Illinois Senate on Tuesday approved legislation that would create a special category of driver’s license for immigrants who can’t prove legal immigration status. The measure still has to get through the House, but it has bipartisan support, including from some of Illinois’ most prominent Republicans. It is not, however, unanimous — and one of the opponents is surprising. Brian Mackey takes a closer look at who’s for — and against — the immigrant driver’s license.

Activists say there are roughly 250,000 illegal immigrants commuting throughout Illinois. They’re framing the issue of driver’s licenses as a matter of public safety.

Give people the opportunity to drive legally, they say, and people will choose to learn the rules of the road and submit to vision and driving tests. They’ll also have an easier time getting auto insurance.

BRADY: “The fact of the matter is there is a cost to society when we have uninsured, untrained and untested drivers.”

That’s state Sen. Bill Brady, a Republican from Bloomington with a reputation as a conservative. He was also the GOP nominee for governor two years ago.

CROSS: “They are not going to self-deport. The federal government is not going to deport them. They are here.”

Brady’s support of the immigrant driver’s license is emblematic of a pragmatic shift on this issue in the Republican Party. House Republican Leader Tom Cross, from Oswego, says he’s changed his mind on the issue, too.

CROSS: “For me, this has been somewhat of a process of evolution where a number of years ago, we were not supportive of — I was not supportive of this bill. I think a lot of us felt like the federal government would be more aggressive and proactive on the issue of immigration and clearly they have not.”

That “evolution” led the Senate to approve the licenses on a vote of 41-14 (how they voted: PDF). The winning majority included 10 Republicans. They say they were convinced to support the measure because of some of the restrictions included on the licenses.

For example, they are not supposed to be used for any sort of identification except driving — using the license, one shouldn’t be able to buy firearms or alcohol, board an airplane, or register to vote.

To drive home the point, the immigrant licenses would not have the red banner across the top that most other Illinois driver’s licenses have.

HENRIQUEZ: “The proposed license would be a purple banner with a large notice at the top that says ‘not to be used for identification.'”

That’s Claudia Henriquez, an attorney with MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

She says her group fully supports the concept of giving driver’s licenses to people regardless of immigration status. But at a Senate hearing, MALDEF was the only group to oppose the current proposal.

Henriquez points to the example of Tennessee, which implemented a similar two-tiered driver’s license about eight years ago.

HENRIQUEZ: “It was almost exactly the same as what’s being proposed in Illinois, and there were a number of instances where the card became identified with being undocumented and there were instances of profiling and discrimination as a result.”

TSAO: “There are a number of protections in the Illinois law that were not in the Tennessee law.”

Fred Tsao is the policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the main group behind the proposal.

Looking at a report (PDF) a Tennessee immigrant rights group prepared on that state’s law, it’s clear Illinois has addressed some of the concerns.

Tsao says immigrants will have to prove they’ve lived in Illinois at least a year, to cut down on fraud and keep people from coming here just to get a license.

But the Tennessee immigrant rights group also criticized the two-tiered license system — one for U.S. citizens and another for immigrants.

That’s also been a source of problems in Utah. They have an even tougher law than Illinois is considering, and require a background check as part of the application process.

Marina Lowe, a lawyer with the ACLU in Utah, says the program there has led to run-ins with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known by the acronym ICE.

LOWE: “We heard from — again anecdotally — from individuals that they signed up to get the driving-privilege card, and then the next day, for example, ICE showed up on their doorstep.”

Back in Illinois, even activists who support the current proposal acknowledge those concerns.

Lawrence Benito is the head of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Benito says there’s been compromise on both sides of the issue, and he thinks the current Illinois plan is “just the right temperature.”

BENITO: “No one’s going to be pleased in this process, but it’s good enough to promote public safety — ensure that everyone’s insured who’s driving on our roads and sharing the roads with all of us.”

Benito says, if Illinois approves the immigrant driver’s licenses, his group will turn its focus to getting a change in immigration law at the federal level. He says if the federal government had taken action on immigration, issues like unlicensed drivers wouldn’t have to be dealt with at the state level.

On that and more, Benito and the Republicans seem to agree.

— Brian Mackey

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