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Article updated: 1/8/2013 7:06 PM

Illinois House OKs drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants


SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois moved a step closer Tuesday to becoming the next state to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses after House lawmakers approved the measure.

The House voted 65-46 in favor of the plan, which now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn, who has said he supports it.

Backers, including a bipartisan coalition with former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said allowing Illinois' estimated 250,000 illegal immigrants of driving age to get licenses is important for safety.

"This bill means safer roads for Illinois. This is going to save lives," state Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez, a Cicero Democrat who sponsored the bill, said after the vote.

Washington and New Mexico allow illegal immigrants to obtain licenses, Utah allows permits and Connecticut officials said this week that some young illegal immigrants could apply if they qualify for a federal program. A number of other states are considering proposals.

"It's historical for the immigrant community. It's a long time waiting. I've been trying to pass this legislation for 14 years and today we made history," Rep. Edward Acevedo, a Chicago Democrat who also sponsored the bill, said on the House floor.

The Illinois legislation would make immigrants who drive to work and school eligible for temporary licenses already issued to foreign-born visitors to the U.S. The licenses couldn't be used to buy a firearm, register to vote or board a plane, and law enforcement officials wouldn't be allowed to use them to target illegal immigrants for deportation.

Opposition to the measure in Illinois has been scarce, though some Republicans early on called it an immigration reform measure that should be left up to the federal government. Others said they feared the licenses opened the door to more fraud.

State Rep. Randy Ramey, a Carol Stream Republican, questioned Democrats why an illegal immigrant should get to renew a temporary visitor driver's license.

"That sounds like an awful long visit," Ramey said.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the state's largest immigrant advocacy group, said uninsured illegal immigrant drivers cause $64 million in damage claims each year, according to the coalition's calculation based on federal and state figures.

That's an expense covered by ratepayers' increased premiums. Advocates say better-trained and licensed drivers mean safer roads.

Some illegal immigrants themselves have said they might hesitate to apply because doing so means handing over an address and photo to the state government. The photo database includes facial recognition software.

State Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat, voted for the plan but said lawmakers had more work to do on Latino issues.

"This is not the only issue that concerns Latinos," he said.

Daily Herald Staff Writer Mike Riopell contributed to this story.

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