Supporters of a bill to grant driving privileges to immigrants living in the state illegally gave the Minnesota House transportation committee a rare standing-room-only audience and almost an hour of tearful testimony Wednesday.
But the bill’s prospects remain murky. The proposal, which stalled in three recent legislative sessions, enjoys unprecedented Republican backing in the House and a stronger show of support from law enforcement. A version passed in the Senate transportation committee last week.
The proposal still faces opposition from legislators who say the licenses could enable voter fraud and would reward those who have broken the country’s immigration laws. The transportation committee’s hearing was information-only, and no vote has been slated. Speaker Kurt Daudt, who’d have to clear the bill for a vote in the House, said Wednesday he does not support it.
To address concerns, supporters are now pitching a new driving card, which would feature the words “For driving only” on the back. They argue their proposal would boost safety for all Minnesotans.
“This is about safe roads and insured drivers,” said lead author Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake. “I want to take the politics out of it.”
Twelve states and territories allow residents to get a license regardless of their immigration status, a fourfold increase since 2012. About 90,000 people without lawful immigration status are estimated to live in Minnesota.
Supporters of the Minnesota proposal from the Safe Roads Coalition have launched an intense lobbying campaign, including camping out in front of Daudt’s office for days to press him to green-light a hearing.
Under the latest version, immigrants in the state illegally would be able to use a foreign passport or birth certificate to apply for a driving card or a new state ID card, which would read “For identification only” on the back. The proposal would not go into effect until January — and only if a Department of Public Safety study turns up no red flags. The Secretary of State’s office and county auditors would train election judges not to accept the cards for same-day voter registration.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the police chiefs of Willmar and Red Wing, representatives from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, labor union leaders and Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis testified in support of the bill. Most stressed practical benefits: Many immigrants are already driving to work, to parent-teacher conferences and doctor’s appointments; the public would be safer if they are licensed and insured.
Cozzens said immigrants without legal status are not lawbreakers, but “people fleeing difficult situations for safety and economic opportunities.”
Jovita Morales, a native of Mexico and one of several immigrants who offered emotional testimony, told of the 2007 call from a distraught teacher who told her, “We fell into the water.”
Morales’ two children were in a school bus on the Interstate 35W bridge the day it collapsed. After scrambling to find a way to pick them up, Morales and her husband resolved to start driving them to school and to therapy for injuries from the accident.
“I waited for two hours for my parents to get me,” said Morales’ daughter, Jazmin Violante Francisco, now 18, through tears.
Dan McGrath of the conservative group Minnesota Majority, who alone testified against the bill, said the changes are an improvement, but they don’t fully address his organization’s concerns about voter fraud. Special markings should be on the front of the documents, where they are more likely to be seen, he said. In any case, “This does seem to me like aiding and abetting what is unlawful behavior.”
Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, pointed to new resistance against similar laws in several states, including New Mexico. There, Republican lawmakers have pushed for a repeal, decrying a black market in fake residency paperwork for out-of-state immigrants looking to get a license.
In Minnesota, a driver’s license proposal passed the Senate in 2013 but stalled in the House that year and in 2014. Earlier in last year’s session, Gov. Mark Dayton opposed the proposal; he said in an interview Wednesday he continues to struggle with it but would be inclined to sign it into law because of strong law enforcement support.
Hamilton said after the hearing he remains optimistic even as he acknowledged he might not have the votes to pass the proposal out of the committee. He said the bill could return as an amendment to other legislation, either in committee or on the House floor.