[A version of this story was published on Reflejos in Spanish – Proporcionando licencias: Las nuevas reglas y una vía de acceso para conductores que estaban indocumentados – and in English. Reflejos, which is a sister publication of the Daily Herald, is a bilingual journal that has served the Chicago suburban Latino communities for 20 years. Check out Lissette Rodriguez’s companion video - Driven by Fear. Rodriguez’s video, in Spanish and English, was also published on the bilingual newspaper EXTRA’s web site.]

Nerves consumed Maria Sanchez’s petite frame as she clutched the papers in her hand, squeezing tighter with every step she took. She knew that the opportunity in front of her has been merely a dream for thousands of others in the United States. She’d received the papers the day before, and they were already presenting options that this 17-year-old was ready to take advantage of.

Sanchez was overcome with a strong sense of pressure. Recognizing her worries, her father attempted to pacify her as they waited in line to fill out the necessary paperwork. He reassured her of his confidence in her abilities and advised his daughter to be poised. He told her everything would be settled by the end of the day.

And it was. Maria Sanchez would be able to drive legally.

After presenting her documentation, Sanchez left her father and got behind the wheel to earn her driver’s license. Although she was convinced she failed the test after improperly parking uphill, Sanchez was told by the testing instructor to have her picture taken. With confidence in her step and beaming from ear to ear, she rushed back into the Schaumburg DMV facility where she immediately sought out her father in the crowd and flashed him a thumbs up.

“When they handed me the license I was so excited and felt such a huge sense of relief,” Sanchez recalled. “I had been waiting so long for this moment.”

Just one day earlier, on Oct. 29, 2012, Sanchez received her work authorization card. Not wanting to wait any longer, Sanchez and her father headed to the local DMV.

“It felt like I did such a big accomplishment,” said Sanchez, a senior at Glen Ellyn’s

With her new license, Sanchez drives everywhere (Photo credit: Oliver Ortega)

Glenbard West High School. “I finally felt like any other teenager who is getting their driver’s license for the first time.”

Just over two months before receiving her documentation, Sanchez applied for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Receiving the work permit and the Illinois driver’s license allowed her to do legally what her family and many others have been doing nervously for years.

With DACA, Sanchez and her parents no longer have to worry about her being stopped for driving illegally. Sanchez’s parents had understood her need to drive, whether it was to school or her numerous volunteer programs across the city.

“I’m protected from immigration and I don’t have to be scared of ICE coming one day and taking me,” Sanchez said.

Gaining momentum: Driver’s licenses for all

The Department of Homeland Security estimates that there were 490,000 unauthorized immigrants residing in the state of Illinois, as of 2010. Of those, 90,000 are estimated to be eligible for DACA, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan Washington, DC-based think tank dedicated to the study of the movement of people worldwide. That means that even with DACA, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in Illinois are still without a means of obtaining driver’s licenses. The Highway Safety Coalition, a recently formed group of law enforcement, business, labor, faith and community leaders in Illinois, estimates that there are 250,000 immigrant motorists driving without licenses in the state because they lack the proper documentation needed to receive a driver’s license.

This is an issue many legislators and organizations are mobilizing to address in Illinois by proposing that all Illinois motorists be eligible to obtain a driver’s license – documented or undocumented. In just the past few months around the presidential election, groups under the leadership of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) organized rallies, vigils and press conferences to build awareness and seize the moment. The list of supporters is prodigious and growing. Events have included a rally and vigil held on election night when participants took a mile-long march to McCormick Place, where President Barack Obama waited for the election results.  Elected officials – Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Senate President John Cullerton, Governor Pat Quinn and dozens of others – are lining up in support and calling for Illinois to leap into the forefront of a movement with national implications.

“When undocumented immigrants don’t have access to driver’s licenses, it creates a group of people who have no way to prove to the government whether they can drive or not or be on the road safely or not,” said Tania Unzueta, an organizer for the Immigrant Youth Justice League. “That is why there are campaigns around trying to get driver’s licenses for all people including those who are undocumented.”

Like many other teenagers, Sanchez has joined the IYJL and ICIRR in their efforts by attending events, sharing her story with others at public rallies and helping those eligible for DACA fill out the necessary documents.

“Before I used to be very ashamed and didn’t want to talk about it, but when I started volunteering and seeing everything, I became more open about it,” Sanchez said. “I realized that having a driver’s license is important for our families and everyone should have the opportunity to have a driver’s license.”

Sanchez is not alone.

“This policy is a necessity because they need to go to work, they need to go buy groceries,

Omar Duque, Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

they need to move their families, they need to move their children and they drive illegally out of necessity,” said Omar Duque, the president and CEO of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

As sponsoring members of the Highway Safety Coalition, Duque and the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce serve as a liaison between Illinois’ Hispanic population and the coalition.

“It’s the right time, because there is certainly a need for the national government to do something, for Congress to do something and move on passing comprehensive immigration reform,” Duque said.

Legislating the right to drive

Since August, the primary goal of the Highway Safety Coalition was to urge the General Assembly to pass Senate Bill 957 during the 2012 lame duck veto session. It achieved half of that goal when the Senate approved the bill 41-14, with one legislator voting present. The House could vote on the bill as early as January of 2013.

The proposed legislation, co-sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton and Edward “Eddie” Acevedo (Dem.-Chicago), states that undocumented immigrants in Illinois should be given the right to have a Temporary Visitor’s Driver’s License (TVDL), something Illinois began issuing in 2005 to individuals who do not have social security numbers but who have lawful immigration status. These individuals include foreign students, long-term visitors, children of temporary workers and others who are unable to work under Illinois immigration laws.

In order to qualify for a temporary license, applicants must have resided in the state of Illinois for more than a year, be ineligible to obtain a social security card and be able to submit a consular identification document or a valid passport from their country of origin or documentation issued by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The Temporary Visitor’s Driver’s License would be valid for three years.  However, the license can become invalid if the cardholder cannot provide proof of liability insurance.

Supporters also argue that issuing these particular licenses will not label or brand individuals as undocumented, since this license is available to authorized and unauthorized people. However, the TVDL does not count as a form of identification, meaning the license officially could not be used to board a plane, vote or enter a federal building. In capital letters, it is clearly stated that the license may not be accepted as proof if identification. Additionally, the license would be a different color from the regular Illinois driver’s licenses. It is intended to be issued solely to serve as proof that the cardholder is driving legally and is a tested and insured motorist.

But driving is not the only reason why someone needs a driver’s license. There are many day-to-day instances where people are told to present forms of identification. In the state of Illinois, people who use debit or credit cards without photos are asked to present another form of identification.

“You need identification for almost everything,” Sanchez said. “I have gone to stores where they ask you for your ID to return something you have already bought.”

Luckily for Sanchez, DACA recipients are able to receive a social security card, which allows them to obtain a standard Illinois driver’s license, like the ones citizens are issued.

Despite the restrictions of the TVDL, it is more than most states offer and is a bill that legislators may be willing to pass – unlike other previous attempts.

“We started to mobilize and organize around passing this important safety legislation since August of this year, but this effort to train, test and license all immigrant drivers has been around since about 14 years ago,” said Rebecca Shi, the director of the Highway Safety Coalition and Drivers’ Licenses for All Campaign.

A bill proposed in 2007 was the closest Illinois has come to issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Unlike the bill proposed in 2004 which didn’t pass in either chamber, the 2007 proposed legislation passed in the House and was defeated in the Senate. The bill would have allowed immigrants applying for a drivers’ licenses, to use Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, which are issued by the IRS to all persons who report income and pay taxes.

Even though there have been three attempts to pass bills similar to this, supporters and sponsors of the bill are confident that the outcome will be different this time, in large because it has bipartisan support. Much of this certainty comes from the election results at the state level in Illinois but also on the national level.

“Since the election, many of the national Republican leaders came out and said we need to do something positive, and here in Illinois they will be more supportive for this piece of legislation,” said former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, who is a Republican.

Even with bipartisan support, bill sponsor Acevedo, who worked on the previous two bills,

Bill sponsor Eddie Acevedo (Photo credit: Lissette Rodriguez)

knows that the bill could still be defeated, as it was in 2007 even with bipartisan support.

“We have an opportunity now with the changes that are happening in the General Assembly,” Acevedo said. “It’s up to us as sponsors of legislation to make sure we find extra votes that are needed to pass the House of Representatives.”

For Sanchez, passing the bill offers hope for her family and friends who were not allowed to obtain drivers’ licenses under DACA.

“A lot of my family members have been here for countless years and are unfortunately not able to get a driver’s license,” Sanchez said. “This bill would have an extreme impact on my family, just like any other immigrant family.”

The Highway Safety Coalition maintains that offering licenses to all motorists will have numerous benefits for Illinois, including insurance savings, growth in state revenue, more economic participation and ultimately an overall increase in safety.

With each license earned and purchased, the state receives approximately $30 in revenue, while insurance companies receive more business, causing insurance premiums to decrease for everyone. According to research conducted by the coalition, if 50% of the 250,000 immigrants received licenses, the state would receive $3.75 million in revenue.

Each year, these unlicensed, uninsured motorists cost Illinois drivers and policyholders $64 million in damage claims, according to the Highway Safety Coalition’s research. In 2011, 42% of all fatal crashes in Illinois involved an unlicensed driver. By giving driver’s licenses to undocumented, uninsured immigrants, these numbers would likely decrease as they did in New Mexico (by 23%) and Washington, when these states enacted their legislation. Washington and New Mexico began offering such licenses nearly a decade ago.

“Passing this legislation will incredibly benefit all of us,” said Senate President Cullerton at an ICIRR press conference held at Chicago’s Roosevelt High School on Nov. 27. “Our insurance premiums will go down, the crashes on our highways and fatalities will go down, and we will have a record low number of people who are stopped for traffic violations.”

The Illinois House must vote on Senate Bill 957 by Jan. 8, 2013.

A model for immigrant license reform

Lawmakers and activists are convinced that passage in Illinois will set the stage for other states and the federal government.

“Illinois will be a leader as the federal government begins to grapple with comprehensive immigration reform, and we’re showing that we can do it in a bipartisan way and that immigration reform is a bipartisan issue,” said Chicago Mayor Emanuel, who vocalized his support for the legislation at a November press conference. “We are a state and we are a city of immigrants.”

If Illinois passes the legislation, it will join Washington, New Mexico and Utah as the fourth state to give undocumented individuals the opportunity to obtain a driver’s license or permit.

“What we need are victories and I think that a victory here fast forwards the cause in other states, and I think that is very important because there is a very large force here and very strong movement,” said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.).

Other states, including New York, California, Oregon, Georgia and Nevada, have either proposed legislation in the past or are currently considering granting licenses to undocumented individuals. A Dec. 9 story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported, for instance, that “Utah legislators who have seen some success with their driver privilege card law,” adding that as many as 75% of Utah’s applicants buy auto insurance.

In late September, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing those granted work permits to receive driver’s licenses, meaning DACA recipients will be granted the ability to test for a license. The bill will go into effect in 2013.

For many, the implementation of DACA and the movement to allow access to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants is at the threshold of a larger movement.

Sanchez flashes a smile and her new driver’s license.(Photo credit: Oliver Ortega)

“This is another step being taken toward citizenship,” Sanchez said. “We need to pass comprehensive immigration reform to include everybody, like my parents, my family members and people who just want a better future.”