Jim Ragsdale

The State Capitol has become part of the national battle over immigration and its latest manifestation — whether people who are here illegally can be permitted to drive a car legally.

The issue brought hunger strikers and their supporters to the Capitol this week, stationing themselves outside the offices of Gov. Mark Dayton.

"I am here because I need a driver's license for me and my family, and for my community," said a woman who does not have legal documents and was participating in the water-only strike. "Go to work, take my kids to school."

Bills sponsored by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion and Rep. Karen Clark, both DFL-Minneapolis, would allow undocumented residents to obtain legal driver's licenses by using passports or birth certificates from their homelands. They would not need to prove their legal residence in the United States to do so.

That has prompted controversy in the post-9/11, security-conscious world. As has been the case in several other states, opponents in Minnesota questioned whether this is a step backward.

Those opponents include Dayton.

"The governor is opposed to allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses," said Katharine Tinucci, Dayton's press secretary. She said that the governor informed the hunger strikers of his position when they approached him in the hall and that he has agreed to meet with them if the bill passes both houses of the Legislature, when he would have to decide whether to sign or veto it.

The Senate passed the bill late on Saturday.

During debate in the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee earlier this session, Champion and other supporters said the bill is a necessary adjustment to the presence in the state of thousands of immigrants who do not have legal residence. "It creates safer roads, increases the number of insured drivers," he said. "It creates family stability and healthier communities."

A member of a United Methodist Church women's organization, Wendy Hickey, said her husband does not have legal residency but legally obtained a driver's license in the mid-1990s. He was notified three years ago that the license was being revoked, and he can't get it back without proof he is here legally. It caused him to lose his job, placing their family of five at financial risk.

"He has committed no crimes other than crossing without permission," Hickey said.

But critics pointed out that the driver's license has become a primary identifying document. They questioned the state's ability to verify foreign birth certificates. "We're undoing many of the protections, provisions, put in earlier in the last decade," said Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake. "And I think that's very dangerous."

If the bill arrives on the floor, a partisan split is expected. In the Senate committee, it passed on a 10-7 partisan vote, with DFLers supporting it and Republicans voting "no."

That gives confidence to the strikers, who believe the issue is a matter of strengthening the Latino community in the state.

"Many of the families, only the parent works, and has to go, bring money, bring food to the children and the wife," said one of the organizers, Lourdes de la Luz of Minneapolis. "They have to go and risk every day."

Monday deadline

The constitutional deadline for the end of the 2013 legislative session is Monday, which means midnight. The usual last-minute rush of budget bills has raised questions over whether there will be a spillover special session to finish.