12/10/2012 05:05 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

Licenses for Undocumented Drivers Will Make Illinois Safer for All

Illinois may soon join the ranks of New Mexico and Washington in issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. Assuming the State House of Representatives and Governor Quinn sign off, Illinois will be the beneficiary of a great public policy that will improve public safety for all.

Our immigration laws do not reflect reality. While there are over 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States, the federal government has not enacted significant reforms to our laws since 1986. The collapse of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act in 2007 has left cities and states to fill the void by making policy decisions at the local level.

An estimated 6.5 million undocumented immigrants participate in the American workforce. The primary driver of immigration tends to be economic opportunity, and immigrants often leave home as a last resort, in many cases alone, to provide for their families. Our labor market is very much reliant on the work of undocumented immigrants, who are often willing to perform jobs that no one else will. For undocumented immigrants, just like other Americans, a car can be a necessity for getting to work, doing a jobs, and anything from taking the kids to school to getting groceries.

As it currently stands, undocumented immigrants in Illinois -- and 47 other states -- who need to use a car have no option other than to drive without a license. This, of course means that there are drivers on our roads who have never formally learned to drive, have never passed a driver's test and do not have auto insurance. This is highly disconcerting and dangerous, and must leave undocumented drivers in a perpetual state of fear. However, the status quo leaves no alternative. Senate Bill 957 would fix this by allowing the estimated 250,000 undocumented immigrant drivers in the state to take the driver's test, become licensed and buy insurance.

The bill's detractors are shortsighted, putting ideology before common sense and public safety. Republican State Sen. Chris Lauzen told NPR, "We have the cart before the horse in the case of granting additional legal privileges to people already breaking the country's law." However, our immigration system is broken and the fact remains that undocumented immigrants, many of whom drive, are not going away anytime soon. Is it not the state's responsibility to enact a solution, grounded in reality, so that undocumented drivers can have their fitness to drive assessed rather than forcing them to go untested? This is a safety issue, and unlicensed drivers on the road put everyone at risk.

Other opponents, like the Safer Families Coalition, distort the facts. The group released an ad referencing the six Willis children, who died in a 1994 accident caused by "illegally licensed Illinois truck driver Ricardo Guzman." Yes, Guzman was undocumented, but his license was illegal in the sense that it was obtained as part of Governor Ryan's license-for-bribes scheme. If anything, allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain legitimate drivers licenses, as Senate Bill 957 proposes, would prevent tragic accidents like the one that killed the Willis children.

As the co-author of a policy analysis on New Haven, CT's Elm City Resident Card, issued irrespective of immigration status, I can report that documenting the undocumented has an added benefit. Undocumented immigrants are often wary of reporting crimes and workplace exploitation to law enforcement, allowing criminals and crooks to escape with impunity. After the release of New Haven's card, the city experienced an uptick in police reports and other forms of civic engagement by undocumented immigrants who felt a newfound sense of inclusion in their community. By signing Senate Bill 967 into law, Illinois may see similar results.

The Illinois House of Representatives should pass this bill and Governor Quinn should sign it the second it hits his desk. Illinois' safety depends on it.