GUY RAZ, HOST:
Illinois is also trying to make life for immigrants a little easier. That state could become the third, after Washington and New Mexico, to allow undocumented immigrants the right to obtain driver's licenses. A bill has already passed the state Senate and has bipartisan support. But as NPR's Allison Keyes reports, the legislation is controversial.
ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: The bill passed 41-14 amid a round of applause from supporters.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Senate bill 957, having received the required constitutional majority, is hereby declared passed.
KEYES: Prior to the vote, leaders from both parties, including Democratic Governor Pat Quinn and Republican former Governor Jim Edgar, are backing the legislation. Supporters say if illegal immigrants can pass tests and get driver's licenses that roads will be safer. Illinois Senate President John Cullerton sponsored the bill and told the chamber...
STATE SENATOR JOHN CULLERTON: We will definitely save lives by passing this bill.
KEYES: The legislation would allow undocumented immigrants to get specially marked three years driver's licenses. Applicants would have to prove residency in Illinois and provide a passport or consular ID, and they'd be subject to Illinois' mandatory liability insurance requirements. Though several Republican lawmakers voted against the measure, GOP State Senator Chris Lauzen was the only one to speak during the floor debate. He says the federal government should act to solve the problem of illegal immigration.
STATE SENATOR CHRIS LAUZEN: We have the cart before the horse in the case of granting additional legal privileges to people already breaking the country's law.
SANDY DRAGOO: I believe that this is going down the wrong road.
KEYES: Sandy Dragoo is coordinator for the Tea Party in Springfield, Illinois, and was at the Capitol for the vote. She says the Tea Party will be lobbying House members to vote against this bill, and she is amazed that top Republican leaders support it.
DRAGOO: They're sending the wrong message to other conservatives when basically it seems they're breaking the law.
KEYES: The issue of undocumented immigrant drivers has been controversial in this state for years. In 1994, an undocumented truck driver who'd paid a bribe to get his license caused an accident that killed six children. Some drivers were able to exchange their fraudulent licenses for valid ones in other states. But Lawrence Benito at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights says the current legislation addresses fraud and identity concerns.
LAWRENCE BENITO: So it can't be used to board a plane, buy a gun, enter a federal building or for voting. And that has helped bring other people along in support of this legislation.
KEYES: Supporters such as former Republican Governor Jim Edgar say its both morally and politically important for Republicans to reach out to the Latino community.
JIM EDGAR: If we allow the Hispanic community to go like the African-American community goes, there won't be enough votes to elect a Republican in this state and in this nation.
KEYES: Some in the Latino community, like Erendira Rendon, say the legislation would allow undocumented immigrants to drive to work without fear.
ERENDIRA RENDON: You start to get a little numb and used to it, but it's still scary.
KEYES: She says her father has to drive to his welding job. And many neighbors and friends have ended up in deportation proceedings after being pulled over and fingerprinted by police. It's why she calls her parents every night.
RENDON: Both to check in and also just to know that for the rest of the night, they won't be driving.
KEYES: Rendon says they hope the legislation will pass and that it will help lead to comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Chicago.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.