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Illinois moves forward on immigrants' driving permit

The state House approves a bill to allow those in the U.S. illegally to get a license.

March 29, 2007|Monique Garcia | Chicago Tribune

SPRINGFIELD, ILL. — Illinois would become one of only a handful of states that authorize illegal immigrants to drive under legislation the House passed Wednesday to create a special driver's permit for undocumented residents.

Immigrant advocates called the 60-54 vote an important victory.

"Today we make history," said Rep. Edward Acevedo (D-Chicago), the measure's sponsor. "Immigrants can drive to church, to work, and take their children to school legally and without fear."

The controversial proposal for a driver's certificate for immigrants, which proponents say would encourage many of the state's undocumented immigrants to get proper training and automobile insurance, now goes to the state Senate.

A Senate committee approved a similar measure earlier this year, and supporters believe they can muster enough votes for passage by the full Senate.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has pledged to sign the bill.

Seven states -- Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington -- grant driver's licenses without demanding proof that people are in the country legally, according to Jim Reed of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Tennessee created a special class of driver's permits for undocumented immigrants in 2004, but suspended the program after unearthing problems with identity theft and fraud. In March 2006, the state created a new program requiring applicants to prove a "legal presence," such as a work or student visa. Now lawmakers are retooling the program again.

In what may be the closest program to what Illinois envisions, Utah issues "driver privilege cards" instead of regular licenses for undocumented residents. Officials said the program increased the number of insured motorists. Illinois insurance regulators expect the same type of boost.

California has debated a similar measure since the 1990s.

In the wake of last year's immigrant rights marches, which drew hundreds of thousands to the streets of Chicago, organizers have tried to channel that energy into political action. Last week, thousands arrived in Springfield on buses, filling the Capitol rotunda with a chanting, flag-waving demonstration.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights estimates 250,000 uninsured illegal immigrants are on Illinois roads. Advocates believe as many as half of them would apply for the driving certificates.

Opponents had harsh words about that prospect during Wednesday's debate.

"Why are you talking about a driving privilege for folks who can't register to vote?" asked Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Greenville).

"Let's just knock down the borders and give everybody a certificate and say, 'Hey, thanks for being here. You're now a great American. It doesn't matter by the means you got here, but you get all the rank and privileges all our ancestors paid dearly for.' "

Proponents say providing a legal avenue for undocumented immigrants to drive would not only make those already on the road safer but give immigrants better access to jobs and services.

Opponents believe certificates could make it easier for terrorists to make their way in society, as well as tacitly condoning illegal immigration.

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