Maria Negreros weighs the risk of getting behind the wheel of her Jeep Liberty before each trip.
Swimming lessons for her 6-year-old daughter and birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s are a no go. But the Shakopee stay-at-home mom takes her son to preschool and drives to the grocery store.
“My children don’t understand why we have to choose right now,” she said.
Supporters of a proposal that would allow Negreros and other Minnesotans without lawful immigration status to get driver’s licenses are waging an intense lobbying campaign at the State Capitol. For this session, their fourth try in recent years, they say they have a more focused public safety message, a Republican lead author and a broader coalition of backers, including law enforcement officials.
But they are running up against opponents who are raising the specter of voter fraud and arguing the move would be an untenable concession to those who have broken the country’s immigration laws. It’s still unclear if the bill will get a House committee hearing before the March 20 deadline as advocates try to keep the issue separate from an acrimonious national immigration debate.
“This is not about immigration,” said Marcos Carvalho, legislative advocate for Pillsbury United Communities. “This is really about safety for everyone, not just us in the Latino community.”
In the past two years, the number of states that have enacted similar proposals has more than tripled, despite renewed pushback.
Tested and insured
In Minnesota, efforts to advocate for driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status go back almost to 2003, when then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty barred the state from granting driving privileges to those in the country illegally. A 2010 bill gained little traction. In 2013, the state Senate passed the proposal, but it stalled in the House that year and in 2014.
This year, advocates led by the group Mesa Latina have returned with a sharper focus on public safety and say that has helped broaden their base of support. About a dozen local law enforcement leaders have backed the proposal. Some point to data showing licensed drivers are much less likely to be involved in crashes and to flee the scene of accidents.
Lakeville Police Chief Jeff Long said he also wants officers to have a reliable way to identify people they pull over — “a recurring problem” that creates extra work for officers and sometimes unnecessary detention for immigrants.
The bill has also drawn support from labor unions and business groups, including the state Chamber of Commerce. For the first time this session, the proposal has a Republican lead author in Rod Hamilton, of Mountain Lake, and four Republican House co-authors.
Hamilton said through an aide he would rather let grass-roots supporters do the talking. Hastings Republican Denny McNamara said he and his colleagues see the proposal as pragmatic: “If immigrants without lawful status are driving anyway, it makes sense to ensure they are tested and insured.”
Meanwhile, supporters say they are more open to licenses with a label that would distinguish them from the regular Minnesota license. The proposal that passed the Senate in 2013 called for the words “for driving only” on the front.
Currently, more than 34,500 Minnesotans with temporary visas or deportation reprieves under a 2012 Obama program have driver’s licenses that say “Check status” and list their visa expiration date.
While recent estimates have placed the number of Minnesota residents without legal status at more than 90,000, it is not clear how many are driving. Abdullah Kiatamba of the nonprofit African Immigrant Services said the proposal could benefit more than a thousand African immigrants.
Negreros, a Mexico native, says she started driving three years ago to take her daughter, a U.S. citizen, to preschool. She’s been pulled over twice and fined for driving without a license.
“The officers said I cannot drive without a license, and they are right,” said Negreros, who decided to speak openly about her experience to support the legislative push. “I would like to take a test.”
Momentum and pushback
Critics of the proposal such as state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, a former Minnesota secretary of state, argue licenses would make it easier for unlawful immigrants to vote. To register to vote, residents must provide a driver’s license number or the last four letters of their Social Security number and check a box certifying they are U.S. citizens.
Advocates argue undocumented immigrants would not risk voting illegally, and no evidence exists that they did before 2003. But Kiffmeyer counters fraudulent voting is hard to document. A marked license could address the issue, she acknowledges, but objections on principle remain.
Licenses would lend legitimacy to unlawful immigration, says Linda Huhn, a Twin Cities member of NumbersUSA, which argues for limits on immigration. “It seems like a contradiction to give such a privilege to people who are breaking the law and are here illegally,” she said.
Nationally, 12 states and territories allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a license. Documents often feature a disclaimer, such as “Federal Limits Apply” in California.
The proposals have also met with pushback. In New Mexico, lawmakers have tried to repeal a similar law, citing recent convictions for people who provided fake residency paperwork to out-of-state immigrants seeking to obtain a license. In Oregon, residents last year voted to suspend a law legislators had passed.
Still, Muzaffar Chishti of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute says such licenses have gained momentum since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down most of a restrictive Arizona immigration law in 2012. With the growing clout of the Latino electorate, he said, lawmakers are also reading “the political tea leaves.”
In Minnesota, advocates have been holding community meetings across the state. They’ve camped out in front of the office of Rep. Kurt Daudt, the Republican Speaker of the House, who is deciding whether to clear the bill for a committee hearing. Daudt did not respond to requests for comment.
Some advocates for the proposal worry that a divisive national debate over President Obama’s recent executive actions on immigration might be seeping into state politics.
“There are people who will link this to the national immigration debate,” said Ben Anderson of the faith-based advocacy group ISAIAH, “when it’s not connected.”