SPRINGFIELD-As many as 250,000 undocumented immigrants could legally drive on Illinois roads under landmark legislation that passed the state Senate Tuesday in a debate colored by sniping between two top Latino lawmakers.
Under the plan, which passed 41-14, with one voting present, undocumented immigrants who have lived in Illinois for one year would be eligible to receive a temporary visitors drivers license that would last for three years.
In exchange, those motorists would have to undergo rules-of-the-road training, take a vision test and show proof of auto insurance. The licenses couldn't be used to purchase firearms, to board aircraft or register to vote.
"I don't view [this] as a reward for illegal activity. I don't think that's our jurisdiction...It's not our decision to decide what's going to happen to the 12 million plus undocumented folks in the U.S.," said Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), the bill's chief Senate sponsor.
"But we are responsible for our roadways. And we have an obligation to our citizens to make them safe. We have an obligation to save lives, and that's what we're doing by passing this bill," Cullerton said.
Every Latino senator stood to speak in support of the measure, including state Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago), who used his floor speech to blast U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) for a "lack of leadership" on immigration reform at the federal level.
"There's no need for this bill to be voted on today. Let me remind you this is a federal issue. This is an issue that our Congress has failed the people of Illinois. This is an issue that my congressman, Luis Gutierrez, for the 19 years as a federal congressman, has failed the people of Illinois. He has failed my community," Sandoval said.
"The Mexican residents in my community have been failed by his leadership, his lack of leadership, and the leadership of Congress to do what's right and pass immigration reform," he said.
Gutierrez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, has been a recognized leader on immigration reform, acting as a national surrogate for President Barack Obama's presidential campaign with Latino voters in swing states.
"The congressman congratulates the state of Illinois and Senate for passing its drivers license bill, and anyone who doesn't see that Congressman Gutierrez is the national leader on immigration doesn't really understand the immigration issue," Gutierrez spokesman Douglas Rivlin said in a shot back at Sandoval.
The congressman and Sandoval haven't had a contentious relationship until recently, when they were on opposite sides in a hotly contested legislative race and now in the town president campaign in Cicero.
On Monday night, Gutierrez attended the kickoff of Juan Ochoa's campaign to unseat Cicero Town President Larry Dominick, a political ally of Sandoval's.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported last week that Dominick's administration employs Sandoval as a $4,200-a-month media consultant, who translates town press releases into Spanish. Sandoval is the only state lawmaker on the payroll of a municipality that he represents in Springfield.
Sandoval and Gutierrez also were on opposite sides in the legislative contest between state Rep. Angelo "Skip" Saviano (R-Elmwood Park) and Democrat Kathleen Willis. Gutierrez broke ranks with his party and endorsed Saviano, while Sandoval backed Willis, who wound up winning.
In late October, Sandoval stormed a community forum in Melrose Park, where he stood on a chair and shouted his disdain for Republicans before being jeered and escorted out of the church where both Saviano and Willis were in attendance. At the time, Gutierrez characterized Sandoval's disruptive display as "not the kind of America we need."
During 50 minutes of floor debate on the measure, which now moves to the House, only one senator spoke in opposition.
"Equal protection under the law and under the Constitution certainly goes hand in hand with equal responsibility to follow the law. I am in favor of legal immigration but oppose illegal immigration," said Sen. Chris Lauzen (R-Aurora).
"Now we're expected to believe that folks who are already breaking the immigration law, the employment law, the traffic laws will now follow the insurance law," he said.
But other Republicans backed the plan, including Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), who was among 11 members of the Senate GOP to vote for the measure. Here is the roll call on Tuesday's Senate vote.
"I really do believe this is a fair and honest attempt to get more people to be tested, to know the rules of the road, let them know they need to have insurance," she said.
"Time will tell if it's effective, but I think this is a very good-faith effort to move forward on a public-policy problem with a public-policy solution," she said.
State Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) and Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale), both potential 2014 GOP gubernatorial candidates, voted for Tuesday's measure in a telling sign of how important the Latino vote is becoming in Illinois.
In Brady's case, he also represents a district that is home base to State Farm and Country Financial, two major auto insurance carriers that could see a spike in auto insurance policies for immigrants if the bill passes both chambers and is signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, as expected.
"Tens of thousands of people in this state get into accidents without insurance," Brady said, framing the legislation as a safety issue. "There are fatal accidents that occur because people haven't been trained or tested."
The license initiative was spearheaded by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, whose members packed the Senate for floor debate and burst into applause when the bill passed.
"The highway safety legislation is a good first step and proof that both parties can put the politics of fear and scapegoating aside and work on practical solutions that keep our roads and families safe," said Lawrence Benito, the organization's chief executive officer.