ST. PAUL, Minn. — All Minnesota residents would be allowed to obtain driver's licenses regardless of their immigration status under a bill that passed the state House on Friday but the measure faces long odds in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The 75-52 vote fell largely along party lines, with the exception of a couple Republicans who crossed over to join the Democratic majority. Hundreds of noisy immigration activists gathered outside the chamber for the 4 ½-hour debate, and a loud cheer went up when the result was announced.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said offering driver's licenses to Minnesota residents in the country illegally gives them new incentive to learn the rules of the road and carry insurance, though it won't fix a federal immigration system that both sides in the debate agreed is badly broken.
"But offering a driver's license will help the immigrants living and working in Minnesota, and all Minnesotans, by making our roads safer, our economy stronger, and our moral dignity greater," Winkler said.
Several Democratic lawmakers who were refugees or descendants of immigrants delivered emotional stories about their families' struggles. They appealed to their colleagues to send a message to Minnesota residents who aren't in the U.S. legally that they matter.
"This is about human dignity. It's common sense. This will allow people to simply open a bank account. To drive safely on the road to their jobs, to their school," said Rep. Samantha Vang, of Brooklyn Center, the daughter of Hmong refugees. "Immigrant rights are human rights, and it time we started seeing them as members of our community, as our Minnesotans."
GOP House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt acknowledged that lawmakers heard a lot of heartfelt stories, and that major employer groups including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, were allied with Democrats on the bill. So were several top law enforcement officials. But he wasn't swayed.
"At the end of this day this bill is a choice," Daudt said. "A choice to grant privileges to those who are choosing to break the laws of this country, and a choice to allow employers to look the other way on federal labor laws. It's against the law in this country to enter the country without authorization. It's against the law in this country to remain in this country if you don't have authorization."
Rep. Steve Drazowski, R-Mazeppa, was even more vehement.
"This bill is not going to become law," he said. "It's simply a platform for Minnesota Democrats to exercise their radical ideology by making Minnesota a de-facto sanctuary state."
The bill faces strong opposition from the Senate's GOP majority. So Winkler said House Democrats have also put similar language into a big transportation budget bill to try to force them to negotiate over the issue before the legislative session ends in late May.