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Lawmakers May Consider Driver's Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants

Illinois Secretary of State

The Illinois General Assembly returns this week for the fall veto session. Lawmakers may consider a measure to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. 

34-year-old Juan lives in the Champaign-Urbana area with his wife and four children. To protect his identity, he’s asked to only use his first name. Juan illegally came to the United States 13-years-ago from Mexico. He owns his own car, but substantially limits his trips - going to work, driving his kids to school, picking up groceries, and making doctor’s appointments.

Really, for him it’s from point A-to-B-to-C-to-D.

Since he doesn’t have a social security number, he can’t get a driver’s license, which means he’s breaking the law every time he gets behind the wheel.

JUAN (in Spanish): “I am always afraid. That is a constant thing that I feel. I know just because I don’t have a driver’s license that is enough reason to get me arrested. So, when I see a police car next to me, I always get really nervous.”

In fact, Juan has been pulled over six times for minor traffic offenses, and arrested each time for not having a license. He says he’d had to pay a few thousand dollars to cover fines, post bond, and most recently, get his car out of impound.  

JUAN (in Spanish): “Every time I go to jail, I know I’m going to lose the money I earned that week plus some more.”

REPORTER: “Why is it worth it? Why not just take the bus?”

JUAN (in Spanish): “It’s very important to me because I’m the man of the house, and everybody here in this house depends on me.”

There’s a chance Juan’s undocumented status may not hold him back on the roads much longer. An effort is underway to amend the Illinois Vehicle Code to allow undocumented immigrants to get a temporary driver’s license good for three years. This license is already available to immigrants living in Illinois on a visa. In order to get it, undocumented immigrants would have to show a valid passport, proof of in-state residency, and a signed and notarized declaration that all the documents provided are accurate.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights is one of the groups behind the effort. It estimates 250-thousand people in Illinois would be impacted. The coalition’s Lawrence Benito says this policy would keep families together.

BENITO: “Since 2009, there have been over 56,000 children who have lost one or both parents due to deportation, and often times they come in contact with this deportation dragnet because of a routine traffic stop in which they can’t show a driver’s license.”

There is a chance this measure could impact the number of people facing deportation.

More than two-dozen counties in Illinois have opted into a federal immigration program called Secure Communities. Under the program, sheriff’s departments contact federal officials about an undocumented immigrant who’s arrested, and then agree to hold that person in the local jail for up to two days until immigration officials pick them up.

Champaign County initially enrolled in the program, but earlier this year stopped honoring immigration holds, that don’t come with federal court orders and warrants. Champaign Immigration Attorney Jack Wilkie says up until that point, more of his clients were facing deportation because they were jailed for driving without a license.

WILKIE: “The traffic stop frequently was the entrée of the undocumented person down the slippery slope into the immigration system.”

Wilkie says each time a person is stopped for not having a driver’s license; the penalties get more severe. He says allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses could cut down on congested jail cells and time spent carrying out traffic arrests.

Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh says there wouldn’t be a major impact on his department. He says his officers typically don’t arrest someone pulled over for minor traffic offenses JUST for not having a license. He believes allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses will make it easier for his officers to identify people.

WALSH: “I think most of us in law enforcement believe anyone who drives should be valid under the state of Illinois and should have insurance, and also follow all the traffic laws. So, if this encourages that, then that’s a positive event.”

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights estimates roughly 80-thousand accidents each year involve unlicensed, uninsured immigrant drivers, costing $660 million in damage claims that raise rates for other policy holders.

Republican State Representative Dan Brady of Bloomington threw his support behind a similar failed effort to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. Brady says his wife and children were in a car accident several years ago involving someone who was visiting from Mexico and was uninsured.

BRADY: “Much like my situation, all we saw was the fact that our rates may go up, and all we were doing was following the rules of the road in Illinois, and had an accident with individuals who did not have a valid Illinois license, and it cost us in the end.”

Now, I was surprised to learn that the three undocumented immigrants I interviewed for this story who own cars also have auto insurance.

They say they were able to get it by showing the titles of their vehicles and their international driver’s licenses. In Illinois, it’s not against the law to sell auto insurance to someone without a U-S driver’s license.

PATRICK: “I’m not saying there might be some out there, but I’m not familiar with them.”

That’s the Illinois Insurance Association’s Janet Patrick. She says it’s standard practice for insurance agencies to require a U-S driver’s license before selling auto insurance. 

PATRICK: “If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. So, I would recommend a person evaluate the licensing status, the complaint record, and the financial stability of the company in order to make sure it was a reputable carrier.”

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and Governor Pat Quinn, both Democrats, say they want to give driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, and hope a bill to do so passes during the veto session. But it’s unclear if there is enough support in the General Assembly to do that. Republican State Representative Adam Brown of Decatur says he has concerns.

BROWN: “You know, I think if folks are undocumented at this point, we need to look at a solution to get them on the books, get them paying into the system before they’re drawing in any benefits, even so far as a driver’s license.”

But Immigration Attorney Jack Wilke says the driver’s license measure would only be good for driving…nothing more, nothing less.

WILKE: “These temporary visitors driver’s licenses could not be used to get into federal buildings, for example, could not be used to get on airplanes. They wouldn’t be good for those purposes. They would confer no immigration benefits.”

Recently, Illinois’ Secretary of State announced immigrants who get temporary amnesty under the federal Deferred Action policy could apply for driver’s licenses since they would have a social security number. The Secretary of State’s office hasn’t taken a position on extending benefits to undocumented immigrants, but it says it will respect whatever decision the legislature makes.

Illinois Public Radio's Sean Powers contributed to this report