Minnesota looks at driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants

Published 9:37 am Tuesday, March 19, 2013

ST. PAUL — A Senate panel passed a bill on Monday that would let illegal immigrants get a Minnesota driver’s license, the most recent development in a push at the Capitol to train and ensure more drivers who aren’t U.S. citizens.

The Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee endorsed the bill on a 10-7 vote — with all Democrats in favor and all Republicans opposing the bill — to ease the state’s restrictions on driver’s licenses. A House committee endorsed a similar bill last week. The Democrats pushing the measure say the change would make Minnesota roads safer: If the state starts to regulate illegal immigrants behind the wheel, they’ll have to pass a test and could more easily buy automobile insurance.

But Republicans expressed concern that the change could lead to unintended consequences, such as illegal immigrants using their new state IDs to register to fraudulently vote on Election Day.

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“We have to tread very carefully here … to make sure that we’re not opening this up too broadly,” said Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake.

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion and other Democrats said Champion’s bill should be weighed solely as a public safety measure. The House Transportation Policy Committee endorsed the bill on Wednesday, also on party lines.

If signed into law, Minnesota would become just the fifth state to give illegal immigrants permission to drive. Illinois made the change in January, joining New Mexico, Washington and Utah.

Minnesota’s current policy dates back to 2003, when former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty made an administrative rule change barring the state from issuing licenses to someone in the country illegally.

That change eventually cost Wendy Hickey’s husband — who crossed into the U.S. from Mexico illegally in 1996 — his job, she said.

Hickey said her husband got a letter three years ago that his license had been canceled, citing the policy change in 2003, after a random check found he had no Social Security number on file. Unable to prove he was legally allowed to drive, he lost his job at a company where he needed to drive every day.

“If this bill passed, he would be able to provide for our family,” said Hickey, who works at La Puerta Abierta Methodist Church in St. Paul.

Members of the local Latino community packed Monday’s hearing, sharing their stories about how the ability to get a license would ease a constant fear of being pulled over and deported.

“We would be able to take our children to a hospital without having the fear that somebody could take us away at that moment when our kids are in need,” Angel Alejandro Godinez said.

Rep. Karen Clark, a Minneapolis Democrat who authored the House bill, has pushed the measures several times, most recently in 2010. She said she’s hopeful that the Legislature will finally pass it and that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton will sign it.

Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said the governor has not yet reviewed the bill.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, a Big Lake Republican and former secretary of state, said that a license without some kind of indication that the holder isn’t an eligible voter could be used at the polls.

“Though it may not be legal, it raises grave concerns about these things happening,” she said.

Other states’ driving programs for illegal immigrants have been abused. An Associated Press investigation last year found a striking pattern in New Mexico, suggesting immigrants tried to game the system to obtain a license. In one instance, 48 foreign-born individuals claimed to live at a smoke shop in Albuquerque to fulfill a residency condition.

Washington’s requirements attracted national attention when Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, revealed his illegal immigration status in an essay for the New York Times Magazine in 2011. Vargas chronicled how he obtained his Washington license. State authorities conducted an investigation that revealed Vargas did not reside at the address he stated in his application and canceled his license.