SPRINGFIELD – Illinois moved a step closer Tuesday to becoming the next state to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses after House lawmakers approved a bill requiring one-year proof of state residency, form of identification and a photograph.
The House voted 65-46 in favor of the plan, which now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn. Quinn has said he will sign the measure. The proposal was touted as a public-safety measure that will enable potential licensees to take written and driving tests in order to be licensed. Immigrants will also have to show proof of auto insurance when they submit their application. As many as 250,000 illegal immigrants in the state would be eligible to apply for the cards, the sponsors of the bill said in the House floor.
"This bill means safer roads for Illinois, this is going to save lives," state Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez, a Cicero Democrat who sponsored the bill, said after the vote. "It's the bottom line, this is a safety issue."
The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the state's largest immigrant advocacy group, said uninsured illegal immigrant drivers cause $64 million in damage claims each year, according to the coalition's calculation based on federal and state figures. That's an expense covered by ratepayers' increased premiums. Advocates say better-trained and licensed drivers mean safer roads.
The Illinois legislation would make immigrants who drive to work and school eligible for three-year temporary licenses already issued to foreign-born visitors to the U.S. The licenses couldn't be used to buy a firearm, register to vote or board a plane, and law enforcement officials wouldn't be allowed to use them to target illegal immigrants for deportation.
"In our immigrant community, families have been interested to line back up in the secretary of state's office, get themselves into drivers ed, get themselves drivers insurance and protect our roads," Senate President John Cullerton said after the House approved the measure. "Our community has been dying for this. This is an important step for protecting families and protecting our roads."
The bill has received bipartisan support since it was introduced late last year. The Senate approved the measure in December. Former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, have spoken in favor of the proposal.
The secretary of state's office estimated the costs of the program's first year at $800,000. The senior legal advisor for the office, Nathan Maddox, said the amount would be covered primarily by delaying filling employee vacancies. The program would become self-sufficient thereafter with costs nearing $250,000 per year.
Each applicant would pay $30, the regular fee for a driver's license. Immigrants would be allowed to apply for the card in different offices across the state, but only one location, likely in Springfield, will review the information submitted by the applicant. When applying, immigrants will be required to present a valid unexpired passport from their country of citizenship or a valid unexpired consular identification document.
Opposition to the measure in Illinois has been scarce, though some Republicans early on called it an immigration reform measure that should be left up to the federal government. Detractors on Tuesday also argued that the bill opens the door to identity fraud.
The bill requires applicants to get a picture taken that will be run through facial recognition software, but they will not be asked to submit fingerprints. Some legislators said the former software may not be as accurate as a print because facial expressions change overtime, fingerprints do not.
Washington and New Mexico currently allow illegal immigrants to obtain licenses. Utah allows permits and Connecticut officials said this week that some young illegal immigrants could apply if they qualify for a federal program. A number of other states are considering proposals.
"It's historical for the immigrant community. It's a long time waiting. I've been trying to pass this legislation for 14 years, and today we made history," Rep. Edward Acevedo, a Chicago Democrat who also sponsored bill, said on the House floor.
The bill is SB957.