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Illegal immigrants cleared to hit the roads

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 9:44 a.m. CST

(MCT) — The simple act of driving his 7-year-old daughter to school creates anxiety every morning for Juan Vicente Urbina, who has no driver's license and knows getting behind the wheel could lead to being deported.

"It's scary," said Urbina, 29, who has been in the country illegally since 2001 and sees driving as a necessary risk. "If they stop us and we get arrested, we could lose everything, you know?"

On Tuesday, Urbina was among many who expressed joy and relief upon learning that Illinois is poised to join a handful of states that offer legal driving privileges to those in the country illegally.

After failing by just two votes in 2007, legislation to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants passed the Illinois House by a vote of 65-46. Gov. Pat Quinn's office issued a statement shortly afterward saying he plans to sign the bill, which cleared the state Senate in December.

The vote came after a lengthy debate that reflected the passions over illegal immigration nationwide. Supporters had mounted a monthslong campaign citing the dangers of allowing the estimated 250,000 illegal immigrants of legal age in Illinois to drive without passing tests to show they are qualified — and most likely without automobile insurance.

"Whatever your position on immigrant issues, what we can all agree on is there are millions and millions of undocumented people in this country living with us, working for us, driving for us," said state Rep. Edward Acevedo, D-Chicago, who sponsored the measure in the House. "We have failed because some of these individuals cannot be trained to drive the roads of Illinois."

Opponents voiced concerns that the licenses could lead to fraud and abuse and had said the measure should require fingerprints from applicants. Backers argued that such a requirement would cost too much money and deter people who are fearful of having their fingerprints recorded in a federal database.

"One has to wonder whether people are going to feel comfortable submitting to fingerprinting knowing that their fingerprints could wind up going to federal immigration authorities if all they're applying for is a driving document," said Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which spearheaded support for the measure.

"All this is good for is driving," Tsao said. "It's not even a valid ID."

Under the legislation, Temporary Visitor Driver's Licenses, already available for foreigners here legally, would also be available for illegal immigrants, Illinois secretary of state spokesman Dave Druker said. Those licenses, renewable every three years, could not be used for other identification purposes, such as boarding a plane, buying a gun or voting, Druker said.

To be eligible for a license, a person would have to live in Illinois for at least a year, a provision that would require applicants to provide a copy of a lease, utility bills or other proof that they've been in the state.

While cast primarily as a safety issue, the bill's passage quickly took on the political overtones of broader efforts to pass federal immigration reforms in Congress, with advocacy groups on both sides of that debate either celebrating or sounding warning bells.

Within an hour, the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform sent out an email alert that urged constituents nationwide to phone Quinn's office immediately with a list of reasons that it should not be signed into law.

"It all relies on less-than-reliable documentation to establish who they (license applicants) are," said FAIR spokesman Ira Mehlman, listing among his agency's concerns a potential for would-be terrorists to get an Illinois license.

"The state of Illinois should not be in the business to make it easier for people to violate federal immigration law," Mehlman said.

At an early evening rally in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood attended by about 100 people, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the bill's passage should advance the argument for comprehensive federal immigration reform.

"We have been clear in setting a national pattern," said Emanuel, who reflected on his grandfather's passage to Chicago from Eastern Europe. "This will be noticed around the country.

"This is a great accomplishment to allow people on a very practical basis to take their kids to school, places of worship and get themselves to work," the mayor said. "I want to take this victory, savor what it is and use it as the energy to move and bring comprehensive immigration reform."

Yuridia Diaz, 29, originally from Mexico, stopped driving three years ago when she was pulled over by police. Fearing deportation, she chooses to take an hourlong bus ride to work instead.

With legal driving imminent, she said "a weight has been lifted off" her shoulders.

"Now my dreams are growing," said Diaz, who lives in Little Village.

Ashley Moy-Wooten, an organizer at the Southwest Organizing Project, an immigrant advocacy group, said scores of people have phoned her office inquiring about the licenses after the measure cleared the Senate last month.

Martha Estrella, 47, of west suburban Stone Park, is among those eager to apply for a driver's license. About six months ago, she was arrested for driving without one after she got into an accident with, of all vehicles, a police squad car, Estrella said.

Though the infraction only resulted in a fine, it scared Estrella enough to swear off driving until it's legal, she said.

"I've lost a lot of jobs (as a temporary factory worker) because I can't drive," said Estrella, who has been in the country illegally for more than 20 years.

Before the accident, "I had 23 years driving and never had I been arrested," including a few years in Washington state, where a state law there allowed her to drive legally.

Now, she said, "I'm going to start looking for a car."

Tribune reporters Ray Long and Jennifer Delgado contributed.

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