By Monique Garcia
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Illinois would become one of only a handful of states in the nation that authorize illegal immigrants to drive on their roads under legislation the Illinois House passed Wednesday to create a special driver's permit for undocumented residents.
The 60-54 vote, after passionate debate, was an important victory for immigrant advocates, who have focused their energy this spring on several measures before the General Assembly.
"Today we make history," said Rep. Edward Acevedo, D-Chicago, the sponsor. "The roads in Illinois will be a safer place, and immigrants can drive to church, to work, and take their children to school legally and without fear."
The controversial proposal for a driver's certificate for immigrants, which proponents say would encourage many of the state's estimated 400,000 undocumented immigrants to get proper training and automobile insurance, still faces more tests before becoming law.
The House passed the measure with the bare minimum number of votes. The bill now goes to the Senate, where a committee approved a similar measure earlier this year, and supporters believe they can muster enough votes to win approval.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Republican, has pledged to sign the bill.
In the wake of last year's immigrants' rights marches, which drew hundreds of thousands to the streets of downtown Chicago, organizers have tried to channel that energy into political action. Last week thousands arrived in Springfield on buses, filling the capitol rotunda with a chanting, flag-waving demonstration.
The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights estimates 250,000 uninsured illegal immigrants are on Illinois roads. Advocates believe as many as half of them would apply for the driving certificates.
Opponents had harsh words about that prospect during Wednesday's debate.
"Why are you talking about a driving privilege for folks who can't register to vote?" asked Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Greenville. "Let's just knock down the borders and give everybody a certificate and say, `Hey, thanks for being here. You're now a great American. It doesn't matter by the means you got here, but you get all the rank and privileges all our ancestors paid dearly for.'"
Seven states - Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington - grant driver's licenses without demanding proof that people are in the country legally, according to Jim Reed of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Tennessee created a special class of driver's permits for undocumented immigrants in 2004, but suspended the program after unearthing problems with identity theft and fraud. In March 2006, the state created a new program requiring applicants to prove a "legal presence," such as a work or student visa. Now lawmakers are retooling the program again.
In what may be the closest program to what Illinois envisions, Utah issues "driver privilege cards" instead of regular licenses for undocumented residents. Officials said the program increased the number of insured motorists. Illinois insurance regulators expect the same type of boost.
California has debated a similar measure since the 1990s.
Proponents say providing a legal avenue for undocumented immigrants to drive would not only make those already on the road safer but give immigrants better access to jobs and services.
Opponents believe certificates could make it easier for terrorists to make their way in society, as well as tacitly condoning illegal immigration.
Acevedo said the bill is "not about helping undocumented immigrants legitimize themselves." He said it would reduce the black market sales of fraudulent licenses and insurance.
The certificates could only be used for driving and obtaining insurance and could not be used for any form of identification, including boarding planes.
Applicants would have to provide a photo I.D., birth records, proof of residence and proof of car insurance within 30 days. Applicants would also be photographed and fingerprinted, raising concerns about whether authorities could use that information for deportation.
"I think that is always a possibility, but I don't think as a practical matter that will happen," said Lawrence Benito, associate director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Al Garza, national executive director of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, a border security advocacy group, said in an interview that undocumented immigrants do "not deserve" driver's certificates.
"They are here illegally, they broke the laws. They don't deserve to drive," said Garza, who lives in Arizona. "How in the world can we expect our laws to be enforced across the board if we keep handing out freebies? This is a freebie."
In the House, opponents feared the bill would cause more problems than it is worth.
Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, said he understands certificates won't let people board planes, but he questioned whether they would weaken protections against future terrorist attacks.
"9/11/01 is still very fresh in my mind," Black said.
Even so, Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, argued 3,000 people in his legislative district alone are driving illegally without insurance.
"The roads in Illinois aren't as safe as they could be," he said. "In my opinion this bill does not add to the problem. It takes steps to correct the problem."
Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson, D-Crete, said Democrats discussing the proposal view the bill as a positive "public safety issue."
In a stirring closing argument, Acevedo, a Chicago policeman, encouraged legislators to remember the struggles of their ancestors in settling in this country, recalling a phrase his grandmother used: "Nunca olvidas," or, "never forget."
"I ask you today, don't forget where you come from. It's from the families of immigrants," Acevedo said. "This country was built on the blood, sweat and tears of immigrants who came to this country looking for opportunity."
In other action, the House also voted 110-4 to send the Senate a bill to move the state's 2008 presidential primary to Feb. 5 from March 18, aimed at helping favorite son Democratic candidate U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.
The measure would have Illinois join a growing list of states in what is being called "Super-Duper Tuesday," in essence, a national primary day.
Republicans also supported the change, believing it would create national interest in the GOP presidential contest in Illinois while Democratic contenders may cede the state to Obama.