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updated: 1/28/2013 7:09 AM

Quinn signs bill giving undocumented immigrants access to licenses

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  • Gov. Pat Quinn

      Gov. Pat Quinn
    Associated Press

 

Ivan Cuevas says he's looking forward to the day he can get on the road and drive to work without fear of being caught without a license.

Cuevas, 31, moved to the Chicago area from Mexico when he was 12. The Elgin resident now works at a restaurant in Carpentersville, and he'll soon breathe easier on his commute, after Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill Sunday allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses.

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Quinn's signature made Illinois the fourth and most populous state to take such a step.

"I think it's really good they are doing this," Cuevas said. "I think it will help the economy, too, because people will have to pay for driver's licenses and for (auto) insurance."

The law is a "win-win" for everyone, said Elgin attorney George Irizarry, who over the years has defended clients arrested on charges of driving without a license.

Undocumented drivers will have to learn and be tested on the rules of the road in Illinois, which will make the roads safer, he said. The law will also requires the newly licensed drivers to purchase auto insurance. Irizarry said that means if these drivers are at fault in accidents, the other party will no longer be stuck with the bill.

"It's long overdue," he said. "I'm glad it's finally occurring."

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a driving force behind the measure, estimates uninsured undocumented drivers cause $64 million in damage claims each year, an expense currently covered by increased premiums for insured drivers.

Though the bill passed overwhelmingly in the state Senate and with comfortable margins in the House, some are still concerned about the potential for fraud under the new law.

Backers of the proposal, who tout it as a public-safety measure, argue that required facial recognition technology is reliable enough to prevent fraud.

Opponents, however, point to hundreds of fraudulent cases in New Mexico, Washington and Utah after those states began giving undocumented immigrants permission to drive. Just last year authorities busted a fraud ring that helped undocumented immigrants from as far north as Illinois and North Carolina obtain New Mexico licenses with forged proof of residency.

Illinois will not require applicants to be fingerprinted, for fear that would discourage immigrants from applying.

"How many people would apply for this document knowing that fingerprints will be going to (federal authorities)? Probably not all that many," said Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Local law enforcement officials argue in favor of fingerprinting, the practice used in Utah for drivers who can apply for permits.

"We could see if they have committed a crime; it could be a crime in another state or it could be a crime in their home country," said John Kennedy, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

The law will allow an estimated 250,000 individuals unlawfully residing in the state to apply for a three-year temporary driver's license and require them to get training and insurance.

But for all the talk of increasing public safety, Judith Richter, of Arlington Heights, opposes the measure.

"We're bending over backwards to give them rights they don't deserve because they're here illegally," Richter said.

With similar frustration voiced by other opponents of the law, Richter said she planned to take her anger at state lawmakers who supported the measure to the ballot box, voting against them in the next election.

The procedure outlined in the new law will grant temporary licenses like those already issued to certain foreign-born visitors with proper immigration paperwork. Under the law, applicants will be photographed at a driver services facility, and their photo will be entered into the state's facial recognition database -- like the rest of Illinois' licensed drivers -- to verify identity.

To be eligible, individuals must have lived in the state for more than a year, pass a driver's test and provide proof of auto insurance. The license is not a form of official identification and it can be revoked if a driver is found without insurance.

Hundreds of supporters rallied around Quinn as he signed the legislation Sunday, saying people need a way to get to work, drive to the doctor and take their kids to school.

"Driving means taking responsibility for your safety and the safety of others on the road," Quinn said. "Despite the stalemate on immigration reform in Washington D.C., Illinois is moving forward. This common sense law will help everybody, regardless of their background, learn the rules of the road, pass a driving test and get insurance. As a result, our roads will be safer, we will create more access to job opportunities and our economic growth will be strengthened."

The temporary licenses are expected to be available in November.

• Daily Herald staff writer Elena Ferrarin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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