SPRINGFIELD – Illinois pressed ahead Tuesday toward becoming the third state to allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses, with the state Senate approving a bipartisan plan hours after top Republicans offered support.
The tone of the discussion – with little opposition among senators – was a stark contrast to previous years and came weeks after Republicans suffered devastating Election Day losses, which they blamed partly on failing to appeal to immigrants and minorities.
The measure, which would let illegal immigrants get tested for licenses and buy insurance without facing deportation, passed the state Senate 41-14. It headed to the House, where it faces similar reception. A spokesman for House Speaker Mike Madigan said it wouldn’t likely come up for a vote until January. The veto session ends today.
The legislation, sponsored by Chicago Democratic Senate President John Cullerton, was presented as a way to enhance public safety and curb costs created by uninsured drivers. The licenses would look different than permanent driver’s licenses and couldn’t be used for other purposes, such as boarding a plane or voter identification.
“There is a cost to society when we have uninsured, untrained, untested drivers ... They’re not going to self-deport. The federal government is not going to deport them. They are here,” said state Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican who spoke in support of the bill. “We have to try to find some resolution to this.”
He and other Republicans – including Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, House Minority Leader Tom Cross and former Gov. Jim Edgar – held a news conference Tuesday ahead of the vote to urge colleagues to vote for it. It was the first time some in the GOP contingent publicly voiced approval.
Washington and New Mexico allow illegal immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses.
Illinois has about 250,000 illegal immigrants who are driving without training and insurance, proponents of the measure say. Those drivers caused $64 million in damage claims each year, according to the Highway Safety Coalition, a group that supports the bill.
“At the end of the day, this is about public safety,” said state Democratic Sen. Iris Martinez of Chicago.
Supporters say the temporary licenses issued would look the same as those given to people in the country legally, so police couldn’t target illegal immigrants.
Vicente Del Real, a 30-year-old illegal immigrant from the Chicago suburbs, said he was relieved at the Senate’s support. He has been driving without a license for several years, something he says he has to do to get to work and school.
He hopes the measure becomes a law.
“It would make me feel more safe,” he said.
Proponents of the plan include Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn, who has said he’ll sign it if it arrives at his desk.
“This legislation is about safety and responsibility,” Quinn said in a statement. He estimated that Illinois motorists would save about $46 million in insurance premiums.
Opposition to the bill mainly focused on urging the federal government to do more to overhaul immigration overall.
Republicans’ stance was clearly different than in previous years when the party has said that it’s more important to enforce current immigration laws than strive for comprehensive reform.
But in the wake of the Nov. 6 elections, in which Democrats won supermajority control of both the House and Senate, that line of thought appears to have shifted, especially with exit poll data showing that most voters believe that there should be a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants working in the U.S.
On Nov. 20, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights kicked off their campaign in support of the licenses with an event in Chicago that drew Cullerton, Quinn, Edgar and Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka.
Radogno or Cross did not attend. At the time, Radogno said she had a scheduling conflict and a spokeswoman said she hadn’t discussed the matter with Cross.
Asked Tuesday about their absence, Cross and Radogno downplayed the issue. Cross said Tuesday that he’d seen the bill and was supportive of it.
“It’s not a new issue and it’s had bipartisan engagement for five years,” Radogno said. “What we see now is both sides coming together and some movement on both sides to get a product that can actually move the ball forward.”
Neither addressed the point Edgar made two weeks ago – that the measure is a sound opportunity for the GOP to reach out to Latino voters.
GOP endorsement “bodes well for not only this piece of legislation, which is so important,” Edgar said Tuesday. He was secretary of state in the 1980s.
“It bodes well for the whole system that we see on an important issue like this, that Republicans and Democrats are coming together and trying to find common ground.”