Updated: December 12, 2012 6:42AM
In the wake of Tuesday’s elections, immigration rights groups are planning to toss another major issue on the post-Thanksgiving plates of Illinois legislators: driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
The groups, led by the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, were planning their sure-to-be-controversial push long before Election Day results that showed Hispanic voters as a major factor in Democratic Party successes.
But armed with those results, they are now hoping to dissolve some of the opposition that made a similar proposal too much for lawmakers to digest five years ago.
Among those taking a leadership role in favor of the proposal this time is Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran, a Democrat turned Republican who also underwent a transformation on immigration reform.
Once accused of running a department that profiled Hispanic drivers, Curran now is an outspoken defender of the undocumented and says allowing them driver’s licenses makes sense for everyone, including law enforcement.
With Lake County’s 21 percent Latino population, much of it undocumented, Curran said routine traffic stops involving immigrants have become an unnecessary drain on both police and judicial resources.
That’s because undocumented immigrants caught driving without a valid license have to be detained and then end up in the court system, Curran explained, noting that most of the individuals involved would be eager to get a license if only there was a procedure allowing them to do so.
“They would love to not violate the law, but they need to feed their families, and they have to get to work,” Curran said.
On top of that, allowing these drivers to be licensed would result in more people on the road who have been tested, Curran said, and once they have a license, more could obtain auto insurance — arguments echoed by former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican who served as secretary of state.
“That to me is just common sense,” said Edgar, who thinks it would also be good politics for Republicans trying to reconnect with Latino voters driven away from the GOP by the national immigration debate.
Driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants have always made sense to me, too.
These individuals are already driving and will continue to drive, so why not get them identified, tested and insured.
It will take a tremendous amount of the fear and uncertainty out of their lives while all of us are waiting for Congress to figure out the larger immigration picture.
But I know from past experience that those arguments haven’t been enough to overcome opposition from those who believe this would only legitimize “illegals” who the government ought to be arresting and deporting.
Tuesday’s election results, and the demographic trends they portend for the future as Latinos become a larger percentage of the voting age population, should cause some opponents to reconsider.
“That’s the main takeaway [from the election]: that both parties have more to gain by supporting immigrant rights than denying immigrant rights,” said Bridget Murphy of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which kicked off a “Driver’s License for All” campaign Friday with testimonials from undocumented immigrants on the hardships of not being able to drive legally.
One Logan Square woman reported that her husband had been jailed in Indiana, then deported, for making a right turn on red while not having a driver’s license.
Lawrence Benito, ICIRR’s executive director, said the coalition hopes to advance its driver’s license legislation in the General Assembly’s fall veto session at the end of the month.
That could be a tall order considering the measure is still being drafted.
Instead of seeking a special driving “certificate” as was proposed five years ago, the coalition wants a regular driver’s license but remains flexible on the details.
Still undetermined are such issues as whether licenses for undocumented immigrants would be visually distinct from other driver’s licenses. For instance, it might say “For Driving Purposes Only,” which strikes me as unnecessarily limiting.
Curran said he believes licenses for undocumented drivers would require some extra safeguards, including a requirement for either a fingerprint or DNA sample from the applicant to help establish identification.
“We need to be certain this person is who they represent themselves to be,” he said.
Current Illinois law requires driver’s license applicants to have a Social Security number, for which they have to be documented, said a spokesman for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.
This could be an interesting first post-election test of whether Republicans would rather fight or switch.