CHICAGO – Immigrants living in Illinois who entered the U.S. illegally may begin applying for a state driver's license in December under a new state law supporters say will save motorists money and make roadways safer.
Secretary of State Jesse White said Tuesday a pilot program will begin at four state driver services facilities and a rollout at 21 other locations is scheduled for January. His office expects some 250,000 people could apply in the first two years.
Supporters of the law say many of those people already are driving and that by offering the so-called "temporary visitor" license, the state can ensure more motorists have passed vision, written and driving tests. They also will be required to obtain auto insurance.
"I told many of the people that were opposed to this bill: 'If you're going to have some illegal, undocumented driver out there driving and then run into you, don't you think it would be nice if they had insurance? Wouldn't that be something you would prefer?'" said Senate President John Cullerton, the bill's lead sponsor.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation allowing the licenses in January, after the Legislature approved it with bipartisan support. Quinn, White and Cullerton all are Chicago Democrats.
At the time, Illinois was the fourth state and the most populous to pass such a law. Since then, seven others – including California – have approved similar measures, according to a report issued this month by the National Immigration Law Center.
The licenses are valid for three years and may be used only for driving. They cannot be used as identification for activities like boarding a plane, voting or buying a firearm. Unlike a standard driver's license, which has a red stripe across the top and may be renewed every four years, the temporary visitor licenses have a purple stripe. License holders must reapply as a new applicant after three years.
Critics say the state should be cracking down on immigrants who broke the law by entering the country illegally, not accommodating them or making Illinois a more attractive place for them to live. They also say there's a potential for identity fraud because applicants won't be fingerprinted. Instead, a photo of the applicant will be processed through a state facial recognition database.
Immigrant rights groups that pushed for the bill opposed fingerprinting because they said it could discourage people from applying, for fear their information would be turned over to federal immigration authorities.
White said his office has no intention of sharing the information it collects with federal officials. But Nathan Maddox, a lawyer for White's office, said the secretary of state's office would be obligated to comply if presented with a valid subpoena from a law enforcement agency.
White also noted implementing the program has cost his office $1 million – money he said he came up with by making "some sacrifices" in other areas. Among the new costs was adding staff to meet in-person with applicants, translators and employees to verify application documents.
The office expects the $30 fee per license – the same as for a standard driver's license – will eventually cover the cost of administering the program. Maddox, however, acknowledged there are "no firm numbers" on how many immigrants are living in Illinois and may apply for the licenses.
Two of the first four driver services facilities to issue the licenses during the December pilot program are in Chicago. The others are in Springfield and Bloomington.
Applicants must make an appointment in advance, which they may begin doing next month. They must provide several pieces of identification, including documents that show they have lived in Illinois for at least one year.
The applications will be processed through a central facility in Springfield. Licenses are expected to be mailed within 15 to 20 business days.