Many undocumented immigrants are afraid to get driver’s licenses in Illinois. (Getty Images)

Some undocumented immigrants afraid of going for Illinois driver’s licenses

CHICAGO — When Illinois’ top political leaders touted a proposal to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, it was painted as public safety measure and had the backing of immigrant rights advocates, who deemed it a positive step in the fight for immigration reform.

But the idea has run into some resistance among undocumented immigrants themselves.

For many of Illinois’ estimated 250,000 undocumented residents of driving age, volunteering an address, photograph and birth certificate to a state database seems like a risk, possibly more than driving without a license.

“They will have my record, maybe one day they (authorities) will just stop me,” said 19-year-old Faviola Villagomez, who was brought illegally to the U.S. from Mexico as a child. The Chicago college student said she’d be hesitant to apply because it could make her and her six siblings — none of whom are citizens — more easily identifiable for deportation.

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Mistrust of authorities in immigrant circles is not a new phenomenon, but the proposal expected to come up for a vote before lawmakers next month has reignited concerns and could potentially affect how many would apply if it becomes law.

Immigrant rights advocates acknowledge the problem, even as they support the measure and gear up for community outreach.

“There is a distrust,” said Cristobal Cavazos, a leader of Immigrant Solidarity DuPage. “People are concerned.”

The proposal sailed through the state Senate with little opposition and could be called for a vote in the House as early as Jan. 7. Gov. Pat Quinn has already said that he’ll sign it if it gets to his desk.

A key sponsor, state Rep. Edward Acevedo, dismissed the concerns of some undocumented immigrants, saying their fears were unfounded. The Chicago Democrat said the bill is a matter of public safety, not immigration reform. Making sure drivers know the rules of the road and are insured would reduce accidents and keep insurance costs from rising.

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“This is not about helping illegal immigrants here in this country,” he said. “This is about helping protect our citizens here in Illinois.”

If it becomes law, Illinois would join New Mexico and Washington in allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Utah issues permits and a handful of other states are considering proposals.

Under the Illinois proposal, the licenses would be modeled after the state’s temporary visitor driver’s licenses. They’re granted to non-citizens with legal status, such as foreign-born college students. The licenses are granted for three years instead of four, require a photograph and cost the applicant $30.

Anyone who applies would have to take the driver’s exam — which requires an insured vehicle — and the written exam, and supply identification documents such as a birth certificate. The cards couldn’t be used as identification and would look different than a regular license.

That worries the Rev. Jose Landaverde, one of Chicago’s most vocal immigrant rights activists, who cautiously supports the legislation. He said the distinction could make immigrants a target, particularly in suburban and rural areas. Chicago is a sanctuary city where police aren’t allowed to ask about immigration status.

“We will see what happens,” he said.

Backers of the legislation disagree, saying that licenses aren’t a way to help federal immigration authorities. For one, the licenses would look like those of other groups in the country legally.

The state’s largest immigrant advocacy group, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said they’d do community outreach to encourage applying. The group has called the proposal a step forward for immigration reform.

While similar proposals have been floated in Illinois before, this plan gained momentum last month at a high-profile news conference just days after Republicans suffered devastating Election Day losses. Gov. Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and two Republicans, former Gov. Jim Edgar and Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, were among those who came out in favor.

The GOP blamed its defeats partially on failing to reach out to minorities and a lack of leadership on immigration reform, something ICIRR groups capitalized on. They say any legislation that addresses undocumented immigrants resonates with minorities and immigrants who are citizens, both growing voting blocs.

“Members of both parties have seen this is a practical common sense approach of dealing with the reality of undocumented living in our state,” said Lawrence Benito, head of IICIRR. “There isn’t political will or enough money to deport 11 million people who are undocumented in this country. We need to address immigration laws at the federal level.”

Not all undocumented immigrants would be hesitant to apply. Mayra Sarabia, 37, said it would make her life easier.

She’s been living in the country illegally since 1992 when she crossed the Mexican border. Her three children are U.S. citizens and she says every time she drives, it’s a risk. She said she would rather rely on public transportation for her two-hour commute each way to work in the suburbs from Chicago, where she lives.

“I definitely need a driver’s license, it’s the fear of every day getting out of the house, and wondering, ‘Am I coming back?’” she said. “We are all in the system. If you have a car, you’re in the system. I have a bank account, I am in the system. The government knows where I live. … If they want to deport everyone in the system, then they’ll do it.”

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