SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Senate will consider allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses to make roads safer with trained and insured motorists after a key committee approved the plan Thursday.
The plan from Senate President John Cullerton moved to the Senate floor following its 12-2 approval by the Executive Committee. It will likely face a vote next week during the last three days of the General Assembly's fall session.
If approved, Illinois would join New Mexico and Washington as the only states offering driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, said he's trying to deal with the practical aspects of illegal immigrants driving to work, school or the grocery store while solutions to the immigration problem continue to elude federal officials. And a county sheriff testified that the proposal would allow law enforcement agencies with dwindling resources to spend more time responding to violent crime.
"We care about our highways in the state," Cullerton said. "It seems to me we're better off having folks tested, make sure they know how to drive."
Advocates of the licensing plan say there are as many as 250,000 illegal immigrants in Illinois who, without Social Security numbers, are unable to get licenses or insurance. Uninsured immigrant drivers cause $64 million in damage claims each year, a tab covered by ratepayers' increased premiums.
The proposal would make illegal immigrants eligible for temporary driver's licenses — which lawmakers created in 2005 — that already go to foreign-born visitors such as students and spouses of temporary workers legally in the U.S.
Because the licenses already exist, they would not identify the new recipients as illegal immigrants, which immigrant advocates said should discourage fears that illegal immigrants would be targeted by police.
Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran told the committee that law enforcement agencies facing budget cuts "would much rather go after the bad guys and not just put people in jail for trying to get to work and school."
"If you want quick response times to domestic violence calls, to armed violence calls, you're going to suffer consequences if a police officer is on the side of the road waiting on a tow (truck) with an undocumented driver," Curran said.
The plan has support from Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn as well as high-profile Republicans. Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont said the legislation is an acceptable state response to a broader national dilemma the federal government has been unable to solve.
The bill is SB957.