(Refiles to add UPDATE 1 to headline)
By Joanne von Alroth
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. Dec 4 Illinois took a major
step on Tuesday toward granting drivers licenses to illegal
immigrants, which would make it the most populous U.S. state to
allow undocumented migrants to legally drive.
The Democratic-controlled state Senate voted 41-14 to
approve licenses for illegal immigrants to raucous cheers from
the legislative gallery.
If approved by the House, also with a majority of Democrats,
and signed into law by Democratic Governor Pat Quinn, Illinois
would join only two other states, Washington and New Mexico, in
granting such drivers licenses. Utah allows driving permits.
On Jan. 1, California will allow immigrants with federal
work permits to receive licenses.
Illinois Republican leaders joined in support of the
proposal on Tuesday after Republicans took a drubbing at the
polls in November, when an estimated 66 percent of Hispanics
voted for Democratic President Barack Obama.
At a press conference, Illinois state Senate Republican
leader Christine Radogno, and House Republican leader Tom Cross
said Illinois could no longer ignore the presence of illegal
immigrants, who are driving without licenses and insurance.
"They are here and they are with us, some of them not even
of their own volition. But I guess we expect these people to
ride their bicycles to work," Radogno said.
Some Republicans in Congress also have begun to soften their
opposition to immigration reform.
Republican senators from Texas and Arizona last month
proposed what they called a compromise plan to offer visas to
children brought to the United States by their illegal immigrant
parents. The plan by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Jon Kyl
is intended as a Republican alternative to the Democrats' "Dream
Act," which would grant citizenship to the children of illegal
Unlicensed, uninsured drivers are involved in almost 80,000
accidents in Illinois annually, resulting in $660 million in
damage, according to the Illinois Highway Safety Coalition.
Unlicensed immigrant drivers cost $64 million in damage claims.
The measure would extend to undocumented immigrants
Illinois' existing temporary visitor driver's license, used by
legal immigrants. The licenses are "visually distinct" from
ordinary licenses, with a purple background and the words "not
valid for identification" on the front, explained Lawrence
Benito, chief executive of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant
and Refugee Rights.
The Illinois Safer Families Coalition, an organization that
opposes giving drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants, ran an
ad this week saying Illinois politicians cannot be trusted to
administer such a program without corruption.
Coalition spokesman Bill Kelly cited Ricardo Guzman, a truck
driver who illegally obtained a driver's license in Illinois and
was involved in a 1994 crash that killed six people. It was
later discovered that Guzman had bribed an Illinois state
official to get the driver's license.
"I'm afraid that this bill, this poorly thought-through
bill, is going to result in similar tragedies," Kelly said.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the number of Latinos in
Illinois was more than 2 million, or nearly 16 percent of the
population. Lawmakers estimated about 250,000 illegal immigrants
live in Illinois.
(Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Stacey Joyce and Leslie