SPRINGFIELD-Gov. Pat Quinn Tuesday signaled his intent to sign legislation that would grant undocumented immigrants three-year state driver's licenses, saying the measure that passed the House would wind up saving lives on Illinois roads.
"More than 250,000 immigrant motorists on our roads today have not passed a driving test, which presents a dangerous risk to other drivers," Quinn said in a prepared statement that announced his plans to sign the bill. "Illinois roads will be safer if we ensure every driver learns the rules of the road and is trained to drive safely."
After a highly charged debate, the Illinois House passed the measure by a 65-46 margin, a vote that lit up the chamber with celebratory shouts and applause and grants as many as 250,000 undocumented immigrants new legal recognition by the state.
"Under the eyes of God, we're all human beings," said Rep. Edward Acevedo (D-Chicago), the bill's chief House sponsor. "We come to this country - people come to this country - to fulfill the American dream. We can offer them that today."
Debate in the House lasted nearly 90 minutes, with critics arguing the new immigrant drivers licenses put the state on record as condoning illegal entry into the country, set up a system that can be exploited by fraud and ignore the fact immigration policy is a federal responsibility, not a state one.
"There will be fraud, abuse. All I have to say is people have called me a hater, a racist," said Rep. Randy Ramey (R-Carol Stream), who voted against the plan. "All I'm doing is standing by what the Constitution of the United States of America says. If the fed government wants to change the rules, I'd stand by that."
Further, some GOP critics insisted there should be requirements immigrant license applicants be fingerprinted and show federal tax identification numbers to verify their identities. But their position was at odds with their leader, House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego), who voted for the plan.
"At the end of the day, forgetting just nuances of this particular bill, I'd like to think we'd continue to be a country and a state...that remains open to the idea of people coming to our country, who want to do better, who want to have better lives, who want to work, who want to be part of our communties," Cross said. "We should work with them, not fight with them, as we move ahead as a state and a country."
Nine other House Republicans joined Cross as "yes" votes in Tuesday's roll call.
Other opponents, including several South Side Democrats, pointed out the unfairness of how someone in the U.S. legally can be deprived of driving privileges for not paying child support when those here illegally now would have a pathway to a drivers license.
"I believe that all of these provisions in the state of Illinois denying an Illinois citizen from a drivers license should darn well be considered, whose background we know, before we give a drivers license to those we don't know," said Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago), who voted against the bill.
Under the plan, which already passed the Senate, 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 nor could applicants be licensed to drive semi-trailer trucks or school buses.
Supporters said the legislation is highway-safety measure because it will ensure that tens of thousands of immigrant drivers now on the state's roads illegally will undergo training and buy insurance, which they don't have now.
"Why on earth would we allow a situation where people are driving on our roads without insurance if we could avoid it?" asked Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), who voted for the plan. "This is about road safety, pure and simple."
State Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-Cicero) said it goes beyond simply road safety and touches on a fundamental fairness - so that if an immigrant parent taking a sick child to the doctor, they can't be humiliated and sanctioned by the state for not being a licensed driver.
"When you have children with Down Syndrome left at the curb witnessing their parents being arrested, handcuffed and their car being impounded...that's disgusting," she said. "That's distrurbing. This cannot continue."
After the vote, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who made the measure one of his top priorities in Springfield, saluted the House for its action that he said showcases Chicago's "values" as a mixing pot of cultural diversity.
"I applaud legislators from both sides of the aisle for doing what is right by acting on this critical legislation to make our city and state more welcoming to immigrants while also making our roads safer by requiring all drivers to be trained, tested and insured," he said in a prepared statement. "This legislation is true to our values as a city and will create value for our city."