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Editorial: Give driving IDs to illegal immigrants

Southbound StevensExpressway from County Line rd. overpass Tuesday Nov. 15 2011. This is sectiChicagoÕs most-congested stretches expressway StevensExpressway according study

Southbound Stevenson Expressway from the County Line rd. overpass Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. This is a section of ChicagoÕs most-congested stretches of expressway on the Stevenson Expressway, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute . | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 19, 2012 1:18PM

Right now, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants are driving on Illinois roads. Because they are undocumented, they can’t get driver’s licenses, and they can’t get insurance.

To remedy that, immigrant rights groups and others are pushing for legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to get temporary visitor driver’s licenses in Illinois.

It’s an idea that, on balance, would provide more benefits than harm. The Legislature should approve it.

It feels counterintuitive to create special recognition for drivers who, from a legal standpoint, aren’t supposed to be here anyway.

But the reality is, they are here. A system that recognizes that fact makes more sense than one that ignores it.

Temporary visitor driver’s licenses already are available for foreign students, spouses and children of temporary workers, long-term workers and others who are here legally but don’t have the Social Security numbers needed to obtain a regular driver’s license. The IDs are similar to regular driver’s licenses, but have purple backgrounds instead of red.

Unlike a plan for driver’s certificates that was approved by the Illinois House but shot down in the Senate five years ago, awarding visitor licenses would not automatically tag the license holders as illegal immigrants. That would make it more likely illegal immigrants would actually apply for them.

Among the possible benefits are:

† To get the licenses, illegal immigrants would have to pass the same vision, written and road tests as someone getting a regular license. If that leads to more driving training, it could make the roads safer.

† The requirement for getting insurance would be the same as for a regular driver’s license.

† Police officers making a stop would know who is driving the car. With the threat of deportation lessened, illegal immigrants would have less of a motivation to leave the scene of an accident.

† Families would be less likely to see a family member deported after a routine traffic stop.

† Health care providers would have an easier time identifying patients. If an illegal alien with contagious spinal meningitis goes into a coma, for example, it’s difficult to identify the patient’s contacts, who need to be treated. A visitor’s license would make that possible because it would contain personal data.

† Backers of the measure say New Mexico experienced a huge drop in the number of uninsured drivers after licenses were made available in 2003. That doesn’t square, however, with numbers from the Insurance Research Council, which lists New Mexico as the state with the second-highest number of uninsured drivers. But if granting visitor’s licenses persuades even some illegal immigrants to get insurance, that could lower rates for all of us and benefit accident victims.

The final legislation should include provisions that ensure that anyone applying for visitor’s license really lives in Illinois. North Carolina shut down a similar program after too many out-of-state immigrants got licensed.

Gov. Pat Quinn, former Gov. Jim Edgar, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Senate President John Cullerton, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and other leaders are getting behind this measure, which could come up as early as the veto session later this month.

If unexpected problems crop up, the program can be tweaked. But for Illinois this is the right road to go down.

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