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Illinois May Extend Driving Benefits to Undocumented Immigrants

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The Illinois General Assembly returns on Tuesday for the fall veto session, and one issue that lawmakers may consider is a measure to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.

Juan, 34, lives in the Champaign-Urbana area with his wife and four children. To protect his identity, he’s asked to only use his first name.

Juan illegally came to the United States 13-years-ago from Mexico. He owns his own car, but substantially limits his trips - going to work, driving his kids to school, picking up groceries, and making doctor’s appointments.

Since he doesn’t have a social security number, he can’t get a driver’s license, which means he’s breaking the law every time he gets behind the wheel.

“I am always afraid," Juan said through an interpreter. "That is a constant thing that I feel. I know just because I don’t have a driver’s license that is enough reason to get me arrested. So, when I see a police car next to me, I always get really nervous.”

So far, Juan has been pulled over six times for minor traffic offenses, and arrested each time for not having a license. He said he had had to pay a few thousand dollars to cover fines, post bond, and most recently, get his car out of impound. 

“Every time I go to jail, I know I’m going to lose the money I earned that week plus some more,” he said.

Still, he said he continues to take the risk of driving without a license.

“It’s very important to me because I’m the man of the house, and everybody here in this house depends on me,” he added.

There is a chance Juan’s undocumented status may not hold him back on the roads much longer. An effort is underway to amend the Illinois Vehicle Code to allow undocumented immigrants 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 get this particular license, 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.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights is one of the groups behind the effort. It estimates 250,000 people in Illinois would be impacted. The coalition’s Lawrence Benito said this policy would keep families together.

“Since 2009, there have been over 56,000 children who have lost one or both parents due to deportation," Benito said. "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 license.”

There is a chance 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’s 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, that don’t come with federal court orders and warrants. Champaign Immigration Attorney Jack Wilke 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.

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 would not be a major impact on his department. He said his officers typically don’t arrest someone pulled over for minor traffic offenses just for not having a license. He believes allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses will make it easier for his officers to identify people.

“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 in a car 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.

In Illinois, it’s not against the law to sell auto insurance to someone without a U.S. driver’s license.

“I’m not saying there might be some out there, but I’m not familiar with them,” said the Illinois Insurance Association’s Janet Patrick.

Patrick said it is standard practice for insurance agencies to require a U.S. driver’s license before selling auto insurance.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is," she said. "So, I would recommend a person evaluate the licensing status, the complaint record, and the financial stability of the company in order to make sure it was a reputable carrier.”

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and Gov. Pat Quinn, both Democrats, say they want to give driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, and hope a bill to do so passes during the veto session.

“This is a safety issue that impacts every driver in Illinois and we should join together to take swift action to save lives,” Quinn said. “Making sure all motorists, regardless of their background, are licensed and insured will drive economic growth and ease the financial burden on all Illinois motorists.”

But it is unclear if there is enough support in the General Assembly to do that. 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," Wilkie said. "They wouldn’t be good for those purposes. They would confer no immigration benefits.”

Recently, Illinois’ Secretary of State announced immigrants who get temporary amnesty under the federal Deferred Action policy could apply for driver’s licenses since they would have a social security number. The Secretary of State’s office hasn’t taken a position on extending benefits to undocumented immigrants, but it says it will respect whatever decision the legislature makes.

Washington and New Mexico already require undocumented immigrants to get licenses.