By Jamey Dunn
Senate President John Cullerton said he hopes to get legislation allowing undocumented residents to get driver’s licenses through his legislative chamber next week.
The idea has been around for years, but a growing collation, which includes Republicans, Democrats, law enforcement officials, religious groups and business leaders, seems to feel that now is the time to get bill through the General Assembly. Supporters say the measure will make the state’s roads safer because thousands of immigrants currently driving without licenses would have a chance to pass a driving test and become insured. “We want to ensure that all immigrant drivers, including [the estimated] 250,000 undocumented drivers currently unable to obtain a driver’s license, will be able to take that test to buy insurance and obtain that license,” Cullerton, who plans to sponsor the bill in the Senate, said at a Chicago news conference today.
Gov. Pat Quinn said he plans to sign the measure if lawmakers approve it. Quinn said he wants to see the bill passed during the lame-duck session before the new General Assembly is sworn into office in early January. “We have a coalition, a broad coalition of lots and lots of different people and organizations from all across Illinois, who believe in this cause. And we want to pass this bill through the House and Senate. Hopefully in the next couple months—before January 9—it will arrive on my desk, and I intend to sign the bill.”
Backers of the proposal include former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and current Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. “It is a piece of legislation that is morally fair, economically sound and politically smart,” Edgar said. The former governor has been urging Republicans to rethink hardline stances on immigration after the country saw high Latino voter turnout for the general election earlier this month and Democrats won big in Illinois. He said license legislation would be a good “first step” toward updating immigration laws to make them more “realistic.” Edgar and Topinka have historically backed proposals to allow undocumented residents to obtain licenses or certificates allowing them to drive. “This has just been a long time in coming. It’s about time,” Topinka said today.
“It’s so important in our society that you’re able to drive, and we know that whether [they] have a license or not, people will drive,” said Edgar, who also has served as Illinois' secretary of state. “I think it’s extremely important that people are tested before they drive. It’s extremely important that people have insurance if they’re going to drive.”
Cullerton, who is a longtime advocate for road safety measures and sponsored the state’s seatbelt law, said that the measure is primarily about highway safety. “Our insurance premium will go down, the crashes on our highways and the fatalities will go down. And we will have a record of people who are stopped for traffic violations. And so it’s really a highway safety measure in my mind. It obviously has some other benefits. It’s very symbolic but it’s also very practical.”
But Lawrence Benito, chief operating officer of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the proposal would mean more to immigrant families than simply becoming legal drivers. For some undocumented immigrants, it could mean the difference between being deported and staying in the country. “For families, for parents who are taking their kids to school, to the local grocery store, or to drive to work, this is an important piece of legislation,” he said. “A routine traffic stop should not end in the deportation or destruction of families.” Benito said that traffic stops are the interactions with law enforcement that most frequently lead to eventual deportation.
Kristen Williamson, a spokeswoman for the Washington-D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said that states should not extend services such as driver’s licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally. “They shouldn’t be provided with the benefits that come along with being legally present in the county and the state.” She said that offering driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants would encourage illegal immigrants to come to the state.
Williamson agreed that the recent election has made politicians take note of the growing number of Latino voters. “Republicans in Illinois and nationally are feeling pressure to appeal more to Hispanics.” However, she said, Latino voters are interested in more than just immigration. “The economy, education, health care, all of these other issues rank ahead of immigration for Hispanic Americans.”