Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran is backing proposed legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, saying it's an economic imperative for our financially struggling state.
"We need them to be getting to work," Curran said. "We need them to have driver's licenses."
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Immigrant rights groups are pushing for a change at the state level. Gov. Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart support the concept, which could be debated in Springfield during the veto session this month.
Quinn, Emanuel and other key political leaders will participate in a press conference Tuesday in Chicago for an announcement about proposed highway safety legislation involving undocumented drivers.
The judicial system is clogged with cases involving illegal immigrants who have been arrested for driving without licenses or auto insurance, Curran said. He estimated 28 percent of the inmates in the Lake County jail are illegal immigrants charged with not having valid licenses.
If illegal immigrants could get temporary driver's licenses like foreigners living in the U.S. legally, Curran said, it would free up police officers to focus on more serious crimes or emergencies.
And since immigrants would be required to take written, vision and in-car tests to qualify, it also would make the roads "substantially safer" for motorists, Curran said.
They'd be forced to purchase car insurance like other drivers, too.
Staunchly conservative on most political issues, Curran's stance on this matter conflicts with the traditional GOP message on illegal immigration.
It's not the first time that's happened. Elected sheriff as a Democrat in 2006 and re-elected as a Republican in 2010, Curran initially had a fairly hard-line view. He was the first sheriff in Illinois to request jail officers be given formal deportation powers, and he backed a program that helps identify illegal immigrants arrested in the county.
By early 2010, however, Curran was endorsing national immigration reform and calling for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
A devout Catholic, Curran has said discussions with Catholic leaders prompted the change in attitude.
He quoted the biblical Gospel of Matthew when explaining his position, saying, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me."
But the economic and historic realities of the situation are factors, too, Curran said.
"It's hard to ignore history, that we lured people (here) and fulfilled that need for cheap labor," he said. "We're in desperate need of the labor."
Foes of immigration reform often call for tighter borders and more deportation, but Curran and politicians on both sides of the aisle have acknowledged the federal government will never deport all of the nation's illegal immigrants.
And while immigration policy is a federal issue, driver's licenses and automobile insurance rules are state matters.
Curran believes the Illinois legislature should take action "while we wait for the federal government to do something."