SPRINGFIELD – A proposal to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants received House committee approval Monday, despite concerns by both Democrats and Republicans whether it goes far enough to prevent fraud.
The plan, endorsed 6-3 by a transportation committee, requires those immigrants who wish to obtain a license have their photo taken and filed digitally in a state database. But state Rep. Dennis Reboletti, R-Elmhurst, said illegal immigrants should be fingerprinted as a better way to create an identifying record. Photos alone could lead to identity fraud, he said.
Supporters of the legislation question whether fingerprinting would deter potential licensees from applying for fear of being identified and deported.
The bill's sponsor, Chicago Democratic Rep. Edward Acevedo, said he's close to having enough votes to get House approval, but would delay a vote until Tuesday. The current legislative session ends Wednesday, meaning legislation would have to start anew if not adopted before new lawmakers are sworn in.
The measure got a Senate OK in December and is backed by Gov. Pat Quinn. If passed in the House and signed, Illinois would be the third — and most populous — state to issue such licenses. Washington and New Mexico currently issue them.
The legislation would make immigrants who drive to work and school eligible for temporary licenses that are 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.
The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights says there are 250,000 unlicensed illegal immigrants who drive in Illinois. Uninsured immigrant drivers cause $64 million in damage claims each year, according to the coalition's calculation that's based on federal and state figures. That's an expense covered by ratepayers' increased premiums. Better-trained and licensed drivers mean safer roads, advocates say.
Opposition to the measure in Illinois has been scarce. Early on, some Republicans said it's an immigration reform measure that should be left up to the federal government. Others on Monday said they feared the licenses opened the door to more fraud.
After the vote, supporters chanted "Si se puede!" or "Yes, we can!" Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a congratulatory statement, saying the measure would make the city and state "more welcoming to immigrants."
"The more we can do to help recent immigrants step out of the shadows, the more they can do to make active contributions to our communities and economy," he said.
Anyone with a driver's license in Illinois has a photograph in a statewide database that includes facial recognition software. But even the transportation committee's chairman, Rep. John D'Amico, a Chicago Democrat who voted for the measure, said potential licensees should be fingerprinted.
Reboletti said facial recognition software is not as reliable as fingerprinting because faces change, but fingerprints do not.
Supporters say that would be too expensive and raise too many questions about whether they could be used by federal immigration officials.
"It would add additional costs, additional delays, and on top of that, if people are fingerprinted, would people actually apply for the document?" asked Fred Tsao, policy director for ICIRR.
Costs to the secretary of state's office, which would issue the cards, would be "phenomenal," said Acevedo. In its current form, the program would cost $800,000 in the first year and $250,000 after that.