The Illinois House voted Wednesday to give illegal immigrants a way to drive legally on the state’s roads, a move supporters say will be controversial but should improve highway safety.
Illinois police organizations support the measure. But Secretary of State Jesse White, who oversees licensing, is staying neutral, and many lawmakers remain skeptical about accommodating people in the country illegally.
Tennessee suspended a similar program after just 18 months because of fraud and forgery there. Several other states offer some form of driving privileges to illegal immigrants.
The Illinois legislation would offer driving “certificates” to people who lack the valid Social Security number needed to obtain a regular license. The certificates would allow them to drive and buy auto insurance, but they couldn’t be used as official identification.
The measure passed 60-56 and now goes to the Senate. If it passes there, Gov. Rod Blagojevich says he will sign it into law.
David Garcia is praying it becomes law.
He came to the United States illegally 20 years ago, at 19. Eventually he learned to drive and, using a fake Social Security number to get a driver’s license, got a job as a trucker making $18 or $19 an hour.
“I loved it. I liked to be on the road,” the Chicago resident said.
But his deception was discovered and he lost his job two years ago, Garcia said. Since then he has worked in a warehouse at half his former pay, and now he’s out of work altogether.
The certificate proposal wouldn’t allow Garcia to become a trucker again, but he says it would improve people’s lives. It’s not a government favor for people breaking the law, he said, but a way to make roads safer and help legal drivers, while recognizing the reality that immigrants are here, too.
Supporters estimate some 250,000 immigrants, illegal or not, already are driving in Illinois without proper training and insurance. If they get into traffic accidents, many of those people will flee and leave the other driver stuck with any repair costs or hospital bills.
The certificate program would reduce that problem, which drives up insurance costs for legal drivers, supporters said. They dismissed the idea that illegal immigrants might continue fleeing accident scenes out of fear of the police, saying people know police don’t alert immigration officials in routine traffic stops.
The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Illinois Sheriffs Association backed the measure.
One reason they offered is that it would make traffic stops safer for officers. Right now, officers who stop an immigrant don’t know anything about that person. Under the certificate program, they would be able to check the driver’s record for any history of violence.
“It will absolutely be a bonus for law enforcement,” said Laimutis Nargelenas, a deputy director of the chiefs association.
Opponents, however, say their constituents are baffled at the idea of setting up immigration laws and then altering government programs to assist people who break those laws.
“Let’s just knock down the borders. Let’s give everybody a certificate saying, ‘Thanks for being here. You’re a great American,”’ said Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Greenville.
Tennessee created a similar program in 2004 but suspended it after about 18 months.
Sen. Bill Ketron sponsored the Tennessee certificate law and now is sponsoring legislation to eliminate it. He said people use forged documents to obtain the certificates and came in from other states and then went home to exchange the certificates for full-fledged licenses.
“It’s been a disaster,” the Murfreesboro Republican said. “If they’re proceeding with it (in Illinois), go into it with your eyes open.”
Supporters say the Illinois measure contains safeguards to prevent similar problems.
To get the certificates, people would have to provide a photo ID, such as a passport from their native country, and submit fingerprints. They would also have to prove they’ve obtained insurance within a month or the certificate would be canceled. The certificates would cost $60, compared to $10 for a driver’s license.
The sponsor, Rep. Edward Acevedo, D-Chicago, also argued that the Illinois secretary of state’s office would do a better job of guarding against fraud.
Jesse White isn’t taking a position. “It’s a tough issue. We see some good arguments on both sides,” said spokesman Dave Druker.
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