Illinois Driver’s Licenses: A Small Step in the Right Direction

Author: on 01/15/2013


Kudos to Illinois for joining Washington and New Mexico as the only states to allow undocumented immigrant motorists to apply for driver’s licenses.  Last week Governor Pat Quinn promised to sign a bipartisan bill that will allow approximately 250,000 undocumented immigrants to obtain a three year, renewable Temporary Visitor Driver’s License (TVDL) if they have lived in Illinois for at least one year and provide proof of residence and auto insurance.  Illinois’ decision to make these temporary licenses – which are currently available for foreign nationals living in Illinois with authorization but who are not eligible to receive a social security number – accessible to all drivers regardless of immigration status is good policy and makes sense for public safety, economic and moral reasons.  And the fact that it was supported by a large bipartisan majority shows that politicians can work together to pass sensible reform that benefits everyone – immigrants and native born citizens alike.

Illinois’ TVDLs are visually distinct from regular driver’s licenses and can only be used for driving.  They cannot be used for identification purposes or to buy guns, vote or board a plane. Undocumented immigrants with a TVDL cannot obtain state or national benefits that they otherwise are not entitled to receive, as these licenses do not confirm legal immigration status, which still must be shown to receive such benefits.

Like all drivers applying for a license, undocumented immigrants in Illinois will need to demonstrate good driving skills by passing a driving test.  Studies have found an increasing trend in the proportion of fatal car accidents involving unlicensed drivers, while noting that unlicensed drivers are several times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than licensed drivers.  At the same time, law enforcement officers waste a significant amount of time dealing with issues stemming from unlicensed driving – time that could be spent on more pressing public safety issues.  These are some of the many reasons why law enforcement supports TVDLs.

Another benefit of making driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants is that taxpayers will save on their insurance rates through reduced premium costs associated with uninsured motorist coverage.  When New York considered offering driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, the NY State Department of Insurance estimated that it would have saved taxpayers $120 million each year.  It is estimated that Illinois taxpayers spend $64 million annually to cover uninsured damage claims.

Although preventing car accidents and reducing crime while saving money should be reasons enough to support an expanded driver’s license program, the main reason I have always been an enthusiastic supporter is simple: it’s the right thing to do.  Driver’s licenses are symbolic of the larger issue of how immigrants are viewed: either as equal members of our community, deserving of the same dignity and respect that U.S. citizens expect, or as easily exploitable drains on society.  I am appalled that parents are terrified of driving their children to school, and I will support any initiative that seeks to make life easier for people who are as much a part of our communities as anyone else.

Of course, temporary driver’s licenses are not the solution to all the immigration problems that plague our country.  They are simply a small step in the right direction.  It is also clear that making temporary licenses available to undocumented immigrants in a largely immigrant-friendly state is not nearly as difficult as convincing a normally immigrant hostile Congress to embrace the type of large scale pro-immigrant reform necessary to ensure justice for all immigrants – legal and undocumented.  Yet many commentators have noted that November’s election was a game changing wake up call to politicians.  The electorate will no longer tolerate their inflexibility and failure to pass meaningful immigration reform.  The only way for politicians – and their parties – to stay politically relevant in the coming years is to take immediate action to support sensible and systemic immigration reform.  Fortunately, Congress can look to Illinois as proof that it can be done.

Written by Michael Mandel, AILA Media-Advocacy Committee

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