Driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants debated

A list of acceptable documents needed to get a driver's license under current state law.Illinois Secretary of State
A list of acceptable documents needed to get a driver's license under current state law.

By Sean Powers/Illinois Public Media — There are only a handful of places that Urbana resident Marcela Guillen will drive to – the fast-food restaurant where she works, to buy groceries and to take her two children to the doctor.

“I would really like to go to other places but I can’t because I don’t have a driver’s license,” Guillen said through an interpreter.

Using a bus is problematic because of the time it takes to commute to her job or to the grocery store.

Guillen is one of thousands of undocumented residents in the state without a driver’s license, but an effort to amend the Illinois Vehicle Code may change that.

The measure, which may come up as early as Tuesday, Nov. 27 during the General Assembly’s fall veto session, would allow undocumented immigrants in Illinois 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 qualify, 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.

Gov. Pat Quinn and Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) both support the move, citing improved road safety and stronger contributions to the economy. According to a statement from Quinn’s office, Cullerton plans to introduce the legislation.

Guillen said even though she drives a car without a valid U.S. driver’s license, she has not  had any trouble with the police.

“But it’s definitely something that worries me every time I’m driving,” she said. “I get scared when I see a police car. I worry that they are going to pull me over, but I know that the tickets I have to pay are really expensive, so it’s a serious concern.”

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights is one of the groups behind the effort.

It estimates that 250,000 people in Illinois would be impacted.

The coalition’s Lawrence Benito said from an immigration standpoint, this policy would keep families together who risk being split up by deportation.

“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 licenses,” Benito said.

There is a chance that 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 is 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, absent federal court orders and warrants.

Champaign Immigration Attorney Jack Wilkie said up until that point, more of his clients were facing deportation because they were jailed for driving without a license.

“The traffic stop frequently was the entrée of the undocumented person down the slippery slope into the immigration system,” Wilkie said.

Data from the Champaign County sheriff’s office shows that 12 of the 45 arrests made by sheriff’s deputies of non-citizens between March 2011 and March 2012 were for traffic violations, including driving without a license.

Wilkie said each time a person is stopped for not having a driver’s license, the penalties get more severe. He said 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 said there wouldn’t be a major impact on his department.

He said his officers typically don’t arrest someone just for not having a license, unless there’s no other way to identify them.

He believes allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses will make it easier for his officers to identify people who are pulled over, and better train more people to drive safely.

“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,” Walsh said.“So, if this encourages that, then that’s a positive event.”.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights estimates roughly 80,000 accidents each year involve unlicensed, uninsured immigrant drivers, costing $660 million in damage claims that raise rates for other policy holders.

State Rep. Dan Brady (R-Bloomington) threw his support behind a similar failed effort to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. Brady said his wife and children were involved in an accident several years ago involving someone who was visiting from Mexico and was uninsured.

“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,” Brady said.

It is unclear at this point if there is enough support in the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation, allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s license.

State Rep. Adam Brown (R-Decatur) said he has concerns.

“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,” Brown said.

But Immigration Attorney Jack Wilkie said the driver’s license measure would only be good for driving- nothing more, nothing less.

“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,” he said.

Pam G. Dempsey of contributed to this story.

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