Nearly five years ago, Olga Marina Franco del Cid, a 24-year-old Guatemalan in the country illegally, was convicted of charges stemming from a 2008 bus accident that killed four children from a Cottonwood, Minn., school. Similarly, a Harding High School student was killed last year in St. Paul after Carlos Viveros-Colorado lost control of his vehicle.

Immigrants here illegally have accounted for a few high-profile fatal Minnesota accidents over the years, and the risk remains high, because they haven’t been trained, tested or licensed for driving by the state. A legislative effort to curb this problem deserves wide support.

Only a few months ago, the Minnesota State Patrol shared this sobering statistic: Unlicensed drivers are twice as likely to be involved in fatal accidents as drivers with valid licenses. Measures under consideration in the state House and Senate would allow immigrants in the country illegally an opportunity to obtain licenses if they meet the training and testing requirements of other state drivers.

Regulating these drivers is sure to make roadways safer. In addition, licenses will make it easier for them to obtain automobile insurance, providing a potential cost benefit to other Minnesota drivers. Although tragedies rightly make headlines, this legislation is needed to address the daily reality that Minnesota roadways are shared with too many unskilled drivers.

While similar legislation has been proposed previously, it makes sense to embrace it now for several reasons, but primarily as a public safety issue. In addition, under new rules, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is no longer cracking down on minor driving infractions, in part due to cost. Record numbers of people are still being deported, but the focus is on those with criminal convictions and those who are threats to public safety or national security.

The timing is also right because immigration reform legislation is a front-burner, bipartisan issue for Congress. Most Americans know that deporting the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants is unrealistic, according to polls. Support for finding a way for them to stay in the country legally, with some conditions, ranges from 60 to 70 percent.

On some fronts, that’s already happening in Minnesota and elsewhere due to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program launched by the Obama administration in 2012. Young people brought to the country illegally as children who meet strict guidelines are no longer targeted for deportation, but they can legally work in the country temporarily and obtain a driver’s license during that time.

One beneficiary of the program is Irma Marquez Trapero, a 22-year-old honors graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., who was featured in an April 1 Star Tribune story. Trapero came to the United States from Mexico at age 9. Although her parents crossed the border legally, they stayed after their visitor’s visas expired.

Nearly 7 percent of Minnesota’s population is foreign-born. Estimates of the numbers living in the state illegally are unreliable, but range from 65,000 to 95,000, and may make up to 2.4 percent of the state’s workforce. No doubt some of these people drive to work. But the scope of unlicensed drivers among unauthorized immigrants is largely unknown.

Shortly after former Gov. Tim Pawlenty took office in 2003, rules were put into place forbidding driver’s licenses from being issued to people who entered the country illegally. Now, a decade later, some lawmakers fear that if the rules are relaxed, the licenses may be used to commit voter fraud or to exploit the licensing system, as was widely reported in New Mexico.

Fortunately, these concerns are being addressed as the legislation moves through committees. If adopted, Minnesota will join Illinois, New Mexico, Utah and Washington in making licenses a possibility for all drivers. For safety’s sake, it’s a move all Minnesotans should back.


An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Follow the editorial board: on Twitter  |  on Facebook   |  on Instagram | on Google+