Illinois officials push for immigrant licenses

In this Aug. 5, 2010, image, an unidentified woman walks past notices for New Mexico driver's license applicants that are posted at the entrance of a state Motor Vehicle Division field office in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

CHICAGO — Illinois could become the third state in the U.S. to grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants — a move top officials from both parties are pushing as a way to make roads safer and one that could have political implications for lawmakers seeking to court Hispanic voters.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton said Tuesday that he believes he has the votes to get the measure through his chamber next week. Gov. Pat Quinn said he will sign it if it passes the House and makes it to his desk.

New Mexico and Washington are the only states in the U.S. to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

Quinn and Cullerton, both Democrats, were joined at a news conference by several key Illinois officials, including former Gov. Jim Edgar and Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, both Republicans, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a fellow Democrat. All predicted bipartisan support.

The turnout showed the growing importance of Latinos and other immigrant groups. The bloc is credited with helping Democrats win big in Illinois and across the country on Election Day, and several top Republicans have said the GOP needs to change a perception their party is anti-immigrant if it is going to pick up seats in the next election.

Supporters of the measure say Illinois has about 250,000 illegal immigrant motorists who can’t get a driver’s license or insurance. Allowing illegal immigrants to obtain a license would mean more of those drivers would have to pass road and written driving tests and vision tests, supporters say. Also, uninsured, unlicensed immigrant drivers are responsible for $64 million in insurance claims each year — costs that are picked up by people with insurance.

“By passing this legislation, this is going to incredibly benefit all of us,” Cullerton said.

Quinn called the bill “the continuation of a movement” to support immigrants in Illinois that also has included passing the DREAM Act, which made college more affordable for illegal immigrants.

Democrats proposed a similar bill in 2007 that passed the House but didn’t get to a vote in the Senate. Although Democrats control the House and the Senate in Illinois, they don’t all always vote together and measures generally need some GOP support to get through the General Assembly.

Edgar said he has been talking with Republican lawmakers and he expects more of them to support the legislation this time around.

“I think Republicans now realize we need to change our image if we want to be a successful and a viable party in America,” Edgar said. “It’s important that we show these immigrants that we appreciate them being here, we appreciate what they contribute to our society and that we want to make it easier to contribute.”

Lawrence Benito, chief executive officer for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said he believes the Nov. 6 election was a factor in the decision to introduce the bill next week, though it’s “first and foremost” about safety.

“We’re doing this for good public policy reasons. If there are good political reasons as well, that’s great,” Benito said.

Republican leaders of the House and Senate were notably absent from Tuesday’s news conference.

However, Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said that was because she had a scheduling conflict. She said she supported the 2007 measure but wanted to wait to see the new proposal before backing it.

Vicki Crawford, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Tom Cross, said she had not yet spoken with Cross about the bill.

Benito said supporters will be talking to Cross once the final bill is drafted.

The General Assembly will meet Tuesday for the start of the postelection veto session. The session concludes Jan. 9.

— Associated Press