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State Dem. lawmakers push for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY JULY 16 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this Feb. 1 2012 file phoIllinois Comptroller Judy

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, JULY 16 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2012 file photo, Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka looks on during Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's State of the State address at the State Capitol in Springfield. As the dust settled from the U.S. Supreme Court's decision June 28 on health care, both Topinka and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, two prominent politicians in President Barack Obama’s home state have faced off with conflicting figures about how much it would cost the state to expand Medicaid coverage. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

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Updated: December 22, 2012 6:30AM



This is what passes for a bipartisan coalition in Illinois these days:

Former Gov. Jim Edgar, state Comptroller Judy Baar-Topinka and one soon-to-be former Republican state representative teaming with a roomful of state and local Democratic officeholders in favor of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Well, it’s a start.

Unfortunately for other Illinois Republicans, who are still trying to figure out how to approach immigration issues in the wake of this month’s election debacle, the driver’s license legislation is rolling at them like a runaway bus; they can either get on board or get run over.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton announced Tuesday he not only will be the chief sponsor of the yet-to-be-finalized proposal, but also plans to bring it to a vote next week — and expects it to pass his chamber.

With Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel headlining the rest of the Democratic contingent declaring support, backers of the measure appear to be happy to accept Republican votes but aren’t particularly interested in enlisting GOP help in shaping what in the past has proven to be controversial legislation.

Cullerton and other proponents are taking care this time to frame the issue of driver’s licenses for the undocumented as a traffic safety issue, and it certainly qualifies as that.

If you’ve got a group of 250,000 undocumented immigrants potentially driving without licenses, that’s a bigger safety problem than the security problem so often cited by opponents. And this is a good solution — piggybacking on an already existing three-year temporary drivers license for foreign visitors.

But nobody should be under any misimpression: The campaign for this law is being spearheaded by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which as the name suggests, exists for the primary purpose of helping immigrants, not motorists.

This is just the next step in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform, one that happens to make even better public policy sense because of the traffic safety implications.

There’s a lot to be said for requiring everyone using the roads to be tested, prove their identity and buy insurance. You’d think that would ring true even to those who can’t get their arms around the advantages of treating undocumented immigrants humanely instead of demanding to send them back to their countries of origin.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Cullerton cited support from the Illinois Highway Safety Coalition, which is just the freshly minted name for the group of supporters pulled together by the immigration advocates.

It’s a strong coalition just the same, with support from leaders in law enforcement, business and faith groups, all of which ought to help garner Republican attention.

The coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights is a non-partisan organization, by law and practicality, but tends to have more Democratic allies than Republicans because of how the politics breaks.

But the grass-roots group is loyal to its supporters, whether Democrat or Republican, I’ve observed, which might be of interest to Republicans, especially as they try to sort out the new reality of courting Latino voters.

Rep. Angelo “Skip” Saviano, of Elmwood Park, the only Republican to show support Tuesday who actually has a vote on the matter, said he is confident other Republicans will support the drivers license proposal.

Saviano, who just lost a tough re-election bid, said House Republican Leader Tom Cross is “taking the temperature” of his members on the issue, “but it will be my job to get the Republican votes on it.”

“With this issue, you just have to put your prejudices aside, whatever they may be, and interject common sense. This is common sense legislation,” Saviano said.

It’s not just Republicans who are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Secretary of State Jesse White, who would have to administer the law, still isn’t quite ready to climb aboard this momentum-gathering political vehicle.

“We’re really looking at it,” said a spokesman for the veteran Democrat. “I think we need more information.”

And House Speaker Michael J. Madigan has indicated he wants to see a final draft of the legislation before making any commitment, said Lawrence Benito, ICIRR’s executive director.

Benito said he’s expecting both Republican and Democratic support but sidesteps questions about whether the election will bring new friends.

“We’re doing this for good public policy reasons,” he said. “If there are good political reasons as well, that’s great.”



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