Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson has become the first law enforcement official in Minnesota to publicly endorse a bill that would allow people living in the state illegally to get a driver’s license.

Hutchinson, who made the issue a campaign priority during his successful campaign last year against longtime Sheriff Rich Stanek, agreed to testify this week at a committee hearing in support of legislation to allow individuals to get a driver’s license or state ID card without proof of legal status in the United States.

“They will be less likely to flee the scene if they get in an accident because of their status,” said Hutchinson. “I hope it will also make people more comfortable coming to the police for any issues. From my vantage point, I don’t see any drawbacks.”

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, the bill’s author, said Hutchinson’s backing should be an important boost in getting the contentious bill passed this session.

“I can’t reveal the names, but I’ve had sheriffs in both the metro and outstate that have told me privately they support the bill,” said Winkler, D-Golden Valley. “The only real opposition for the bill is a conservative base who thinks undocumented immigrants should be deployed. We do have a chance of getting this done.”

Others who testified in favor of the bill were state Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero; Michelle Rivero, director of the Minneapolis Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs; and Isabela Alesna, an organizer with the Minneapolis-based Asian American Organizing Project.

The bill, introduced two weeks ago, will be heard in two more committees by next week and then go to the House floor for a vote, Winkler said. A Senate version of the bill hasn’t been introduced, but he said legislators are working on it. If the bill becomes law, Minnesota will become the 13th state to permit such licenses.

Taking a position

To obtain what is called a “noncompliant” license under the bill, a person would have to pass the state driver’s license test and buy vehicle insurance. They must confirm their Minnesota residence and identity through a specific list of documents. The license wouldn’t give its holder the right to vote.

An estimated 95,000 immigrants live in Minnesota illegally, according to the Pew Research Center. The state used to allow such residents to get driver’s licenses, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty ended the practice in 2003 as part of a wider effort to prevent terrorism.

Since that time, Winkler said, there have been attempts by immigrant communities, especially Latino, to restore the law. The Senate has passed bills similar to the one introduced by Winkler, but they stalled after failed attempts to undo restrictions created by a state regulation and new federal identification requirements for driver’s licenses.

Outside the Legislature, the bill has received the green light from the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Attorney General Keith Ellison said he backs the legislation as a matter of public safety and “of helping people live with dignity.” Groups from the hospitality and agriculture industry, as well as Twin Cities Archbishop Bernard Hebda, said the proposal is an important human rights test.

The Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association and Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association haven’t taken a stance on the bill. St. Paul police declined to comment, and Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder said the department always considers its primary goal to be public safety.

“We realize the importance of driver’s licenses for all members of the community,” Elder said.

Among the legislators opposed to the driver’s license bill is Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. In 2017, he scuttled a Democratic attempt to tie immigrant driver’s licenses to a measure to bring the state into compliance with federal Real ID requirements. Gazelka said he wishes the license issue would have been resolved at the federal level.

“I’m concerned we are rewarding people for illegal behavior,” Gazelka said. “I’m sure that Representative Winkler has some good points why this bill could be beneficial, but would this lead to a bill about making Minnesota a sanctuary state?”

 

David Chanen • 612-673-4465