By Jamey Dunn
As President Barack Obama and members of Congress begin a push toward federal immigration reform, Illinois has begun taking steps to address the practical matters associated with the state’s large population of undocumented immigrants.
As expected, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill into law yesterday that will allow immigrants who are living in the country illegally access to temporary driver’s licenses. Those applying for the licenses must provide proof that they have lived in the state for one year. Proponents say this requirement will prevent immigrants in other states from coming to Illinois to get licenses. The licenses available to undocumented immigrants will be temporary and have a different appearance than the state’s standard driver’s licenses. They will not be valid as a form of identification for other purposes, such as boarding a plane or buying a firearm.
Proponents frame the new law as a public safety initiative. “This law will make the roads of Illinois safer for all of us. It requires that you pass a vision test, the written test and the road test,” Secretary of State Jesse White said at a Chicago event yesterday. White said his office would make efforts in the coming months to educate the public about how to obtain the licenses. He said that he plans to start issuing the licenses in October. “I look forward to issuing the first driver’s license on October 1 of this year.”
When the measure was up for debate in the legislature, opponents argued that the requirements for the licenses were licenses were too slack, opening up the potential for fraud. Many said that applicants should have to be fingerprinted in order to get a license. They also argued that it is not up to states to address immigration policy. “We are ... engaging in activities the U.S. government should be taking [on] themselves,” Rep. Dwight Kay, a Republican from Glen Carbon, said when the bill was debated on the House floor. Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, said the state should not “provide privileges for people who are not citizens here.”
A push for immigration reform is kicking off this week at the national level. A bipartisan group of senators plans to unveil a proposal today. Obama is scheduled to give a speech on the topic tomorrow in Las Vegas. The Senate plan reportedly will include increased efforts to secure the border and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country. Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain are both part of the group that came up with the proposal, and both took to the Sunday morning political talk shows yesterday to discuss it. “We are committed to a comprehensive approach to immigration that we can live with,” Durbin told Fox News Sunday. McCain was blunt about the political incentives for Republicans. “Look at the last election,” McCain said Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos. “We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours.”
McCain also said, “We can’t go on forever with 11 million people living in this country in the shadows in an illegal status.”
Quinn pointed to the bill he signed yesterday and the Illinois Dream Act, a bill he signed in 2011 that allows undocumented students access to privately funded scholarships, as steps that could become models for national policy. “Comprehensive immigration reform, here we come in the United States of America,” he said.
Chicago Democratic Rep. Edward Acevedo, who sponsored both pieces of legislation, said that access to driver’s licenses is a step, but more needs to be done to address immigration. “This achievement — while wonderful — it is just another mile marker in the journey to securing the American dream for all people,” Acevedo said. “This bill is not just about driver’s licenses, it’s about equality for all.”
Some Republicans crossed the aisle to support both the Illinois Dream Act and the new law that will allow access to driver’s licenses. Republican Senate Leader Christine Radogno said that the lawmakers on the federal level could look to the negotiations on the driver’s license bill as an example of how to achieve broad support on immigration legislation. “We had the opponents and the proponents all come together. Everybody gave a little bit,” she said. “I hope that we can take this model on this bill in this state and apply it nationally to get something done that so desperately need to be done.”