Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill into law today that grants hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants the right to drive. The new law makes Illinois the fourth state to allow driver’s licenses or permits for undocumented immigrants and comes ahead of President Obama’s expected announcement on a plan for comprehensive immigration reform expected on Tuesday.
Quinn and the bipartisan supporters of the legislation say the measure will improve traffic safety in the state. “This common sense law will help everybody, regardless of their background, learn the rules of the road, pass a driving test and get insurance,” Governor Quinn said. Despite the stalemate on immigration reform in Washington D.C., Illinois is moving forward. As a result, our roads will be safer, we will create more access to job opportunities and our economic growth will be strengthened.”
For Illinois residents such as Eugenia Flores, a 41-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, the new law could provide protection from criminal prosecution. Currently, if undocumented immigrants decide to get behind the wheel, a routine traffic stop could lead to fingerprinting and possible deportation.
“I’m a good driver,” says Flores. “But my kids get scared when the police stop me. They don’t want me to drive anymore. But I tell them I have to because who will take them to school?”
Proponents of the controversial law, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, count about 250,000 undocumented immigrants in the state who drive without licenses. These untrained and untested drivers lead to crashes and higher insurance costs for other motorists, with unlicensed immigrant drivers accounting for around $64 million in damage claims every year, according to the Illinois Highway Safety Coalition.
Unlicensed drivers will continue to drive with or without a license says Lawrence Benito, president of one of the chief lobbying groups for the bill, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “They have to continue to bring their kids to school or go to church or drive to work,” he says.
The issue has divided lawmakers in Washington, Utah and New Mexico, the only three states that provide identification for undocumented immigrants who wish to drive. The debate has picked up momentum ahead of federal legislation that will soon require state driver’s licenses to double as national identification. Opponents of the measure, including Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico, cite concerns that these types of licenses will lead to fraud.
In November 2011, two road test instructors for the Ilinois Secretary of State were indicted for accepting money in exchange for fake driver’s licenses as part of a crime ring.
Meanwhile, Illinois Representative Dwight Kay argues that the law will lead to an influx of undocumented immigrants to the state.
“Granting individuals who came to our country illegally and giving them a benefit sends the wrong message,” Kay said in a statement after the Illinois House passed the legislation. “A driver’s license is a privilege, not a right; giving illegals the privilege to drive in our state legally when they broke our laws to come here is bad public policy. We must follow our Constitution and not pass laws based on whichever way the wind blows.”
Applicants for the license must provide a form of identification such as a passport, as well as proof of Illinois residency. License holders won’t be able to purchase firearms, fly on commercial planes or vote — the card can only be used for driving. But, for Eugenia Flores, that privilege is more than enough.
“I don’t want to spend my life just inside my house,” says Flores. “When the police stop you, you feel like a criminal. Now, I can feel free.”