WASHINGTON -- The Illinois House voted 65-46 on Tuesday in favor of a bill to give driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, after advocates argued that the legislation could make the roads safer and prevent people from driving without insurance.
The bill will now go to the desk of Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who plans to sign it. The state Senate already approved the measure, also with bipartisan support.
“I want to commend members of the Illinois House for their bipartisan passage of legislation that will help ensure every Illinois motorist is properly licensed and empower more immigrants to become stronger contributors to our economy," Quinn said in a statement after the vote. "Not only will Senate Bill 957 save lives, it will save Illinois motorists $46 million a year in insurance premiums by making sure every driver is properly insured."
When Quinn signs the bill, Illinois will become one of a few states to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driving permits. Those licenses will not be the same as driver's licenses for citizens and legal residents, and cannot be used as a form of identification in certain situations, like boarding planes or buying weapons.
Many states have begun to issue driver's licenses to young undocumented immigrants who are granted deferred action from the federal government. But the Illinois bill is much broader. It would impact an estimated 25,000 undocumented immigrants in Illinois who currently aren't allowed to drive legally. To obtain the three-year temporary licenses, immigrants will need to pass tests and obtain auto insurance, plus show they live in the state by providing a lease or utility bills.
During debate preceding the vote, opponents of the bill argued it should include fingerprinting to deter fraud. Others said the bill could be violating the Constitution by granting a form of "amnesty" to undocumented immigrants.
"What gives us the right to do this?" asked Rep. Dwight Kay, a Republican, asked on the assembly floor before the vote. "Why are we engaging in activities that the U.S. government should be taking upon themselves? ... We are, I think, breaking the rules. We're not following the U.S. Constitution."
But others within his party were swayed by arguments about public safety, which proponents said would be improved by ensuring more drivers have insurance and have passed driving tests. Rep. Dan Brady, a Republican, said he was reluctantly voting for the bill for that reason.
"We have to begin in this state to take into our own hands immigration issues to make things safer in this state of Illinois that are law-abiding citizens," Brady said on the floor. "It's a sad state of affairs, but the reality is my priority."
Rep. Lou Lang, a Democrat, made a similar argument about the need for people to drive with licenses and insurance. "This bill is about road safety, pure and simple," he said.
"Deportation and the issue of immigration is not our function," he added later. "It's the function of the United States government. The folks that don't have driver's licenses are driving and they work. ... If you want to succumb to fear, you want to succumb to the anger of people in your districts that undocumented immigrants should not be in this country, then call your congressman."
Advocates for the bill said they hope it will be a spark immigration reform nationwide.
"Passing the highway safety legislation is proof that both parties can put the politics of fear and scapegoating aside and work on practical solutions that keep our roads and families safe,” Lawrence Benito, CEO of Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "Illinois is an example of what can happen nationally."