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Illinois could become the third state — after Washington and New Mexico — where undocumented immigrants can obtain driver's licenses. The legislation is halfway there. A bill that passed the state Senate 41-14 last Tuesday has bipartisan support.
Before the Senate vote, leaders from both parties, including Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and Republican former Gov. Jim Edgar, spoke out in favor of the legislation. Supporters say that the roads will be safer if undocumented immigrants can pass the tests and get driver's licenses.
"We will definitely save lives by passing this bill," says Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, a Democrat who sponsored the bill.
The legislation would allow undocumented immigrants to get specially marked three–year driver's licenses. Applicants would have to prove residency in Illinois and provide a passport or consular ID, and they'd be subject to Illinois' mandatory liability insurance requirements.
Critics: Law Puts Cart Before The Horse
Although several Republican lawmakers voted against the measure, Republican State Sen. Chris Lauzen was the only one to speak during the floor debate. He says the national government should act to solve the problem of illegal immigration.
"We have the cart before the horse in the case of granting additional legal privileges to people already breaking the country's law," he says. "I believe this is going down the wrong road."
Sandy Drago, coordinator of the Tea Party in Springfield, Ill., says the Tea Party will lobby members of the state House to vote against this bill. She says she's amazed top Republican leaders support it.
"They're sending the wrong message to other conservatives when, basically, it seems they are breaking the law," Drago says.
The issue of undocumented immigrant drivers has been controversial in this state for years. In 1994, an undocumented truck driver, who had paid a bribe to get his license, caused a crash that killed six children.
Some drivers were able to exchange their fraudulent licenses for valid ones in other states.
But Lawrence Benito, at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, says the current legislation addresses fraud and identity concerns.
"It can't be used to board a plane, buy a gun, enter a federal building or for voting," Benito says. "And that has helped bring others along in support of this legislation."
Supporters Back Legislation For Many Reasons
Supporters, such as former Gov. Edgar, say it's both morally and politically important for Republicans to reach out to the Latino community.
"If we allow the Hispanic community to go like the African-American community goes, there won't be enough votes to elect a Republican in this state and in this nation," Edgar says.
Some in the Latino community, like Erendira Rendon, say the legislation would allow undocumented immigrants to drive to work without fear.
"You start to get a little numb and used to it, but it's still scary," Rendon says.
She says her father has to drive to his welding job. Many neighbors and friends have ended up in deportation proceedings after being pulled over and fingerprinted by police. So, she calls her parents every night, both to check in and to make sure they won't be driving for the rest of the night.
Rendon says she hopes the legislation will pass and that it will help lead to comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level.