(MCT) — A measure to allow hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to get special Illinois driver's licenses sailed through the Senate Tuesday, even as supporters predicted a House vote will be close next month.
Backers led by Democratic Senate President John Cullerton chose to set aside the unresolved national debate over how to address overall immigration reform and instead focus on legislation they argued would improve chances of getting more drivers tested, trained and insured in Illinois.
"We will definitely save lives by passing this bill," Cullerton said.
The proposal would allow an estimated 250,000 illegal immigrants in Illinois to get three-year renewable licenses to drive a vehicle. They could not officially be used for other identification purposes, such as for boarding a plane, buying a gun or voting. To become eligible, a person would have to live within Illinois for at least a year — a provision that would require applicants to provide a copy of a lease, utility bills and the like.
Under current law, people without a Social Security number or proper documentation to be in the country can't get a driver's license and often have trouble getting car insurance. The proposal won't require somebody to have insurance before applying for a license because insurance is tied to a vehicle, but supporters note it's already illegal to drive an uninsured car whether a person has a license or not.
Republican Sen. Chris Lauzen of Aurora said he strongly opposed granting driving privileges to people who are breaking the law by being in the country illegally. Moving Illinois into this new territory, Lauzen said, would mean "we have the cart before the horse."
But Democratic Sen. Willie Delgado of Chicago said passing the legislation is the sign of a "new day." He and other members of the Latino caucus argued the bill would let people drive to work, church and the grocery store without fear of getting stopped or breaking the law.
The measure passed 41-14, and now the battle goes to the House, where Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, supports the bill. Sponsoring Rep. Edward Acevedo, D-Chicago, said he still is working to ensure he would have enough votes to pass the measure when it comes up in January. Acevedo said the roll call would be "very close," but was confident the bill would pass despite steady resistance.
"There's never a sure thing, but if you believe in the legislation that you're trying to do for the people of Illinois, you work hard to get the bill done," Acevedo said.
Five years ago, the House passed a different version of the bill, but it stalled in the Senate. Since then, the political ground has shifted. Republicans have begun to reach out to Latinos, particularly following an election where the GOP attributed losses to the growing strength of Hispanic voters.
Former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, who supports the license measure, acknowledged the political benefit during an appearance at the Capitol. But Edgar said he also hoped Washington politicians working on immigration policy and other issues could take a lesson from the way both parties in Illinois are beginning to coalesce around the driving issue.
Edgar joined other Republican leaders in standing with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights on Tuesday, echoing support he gave earlier in Chicago with Republicans, Cullerton and Chicago Democratic leaders like Gov. Pat Quinn, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno of Lemont said the latest version of the license proposal would need to be evaluated as it takes effect. But she suggested the current policy of no licenses for undocumented drivers means that Illinoisans must "expect them to ride their bicycles to work, I guess, for the rest of their lives."
Republican Rep. Angelo "Skip" Saviano of Elmwood Park called the bill "common sense."
"We all share in the cost in our insurance premiums to cover the cost of uninsured motorists," said Saviano, who lost a re-election bid last month. "It's time that in this state that we realized that there is a problem. Take the blinders off and address the problem.
But Republican Rep. Randy Ramey of Carol Stream signaled he will keep fighting the measure even though House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego supports it.
"There are a lot of people out there who think it's the wrong thing to do," said Ramey, who lost a primary bid for Senate. "The basics of this are, they broke the law to begin with. And who's to say they won't break the law again."