By Wayne Jebian
A bill in the State House of Representatives meant to give immigrants a clear path to obtaining state driver’s licenses has revealed common ground between House Republicans and federally undocumented immigrants. Neither group is satisfied with the status quo (for different reasons) and both welcome legislative action to clarify the rules on who can obtain drivers’ licenses.
The language of the bill, HB6037, has yet to be fleshed out and disagreements will likely emerge both in committee and during the voting process, given the bill’s intent and the differing views between Democrats and Republicans on immigration policy. The bill is titled An Act Concerning the Issuance of a Motor Vehicle Operator’s License to Certain Immigrants, and state Rep. Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven), who introduced the bill, is clear that his goal is to expand driving privileges to more people regardless of federal immigration status.
“We have approximately 50,000 undocumented immigrants in the state of Connecticut,” Candelaria said. “More licensed drivers would be a revenue stream for the state. The insurance companies will benefit from this, and the residents and immigrants will benefit from this, because at least they’ll be able to drive without the fear of being stopped by a police officer. When you are in a traffic accident, the likelihood of you staying at the scene will be more, if you have a driver’s license, instead of fleeing the scene.”
A public hearing about driver’s licenses for all immigrants will be held Monday, February 25 in New Haven. A location has not been announced yet.
Candelaria’s bill came a month after the state issued new rules allowing a limited number of federally undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. Last June, President Obama created a “Deferred Action Status,” permitting certain immigrants, such as those who came to this country with their parents as minors, to remain in the United States. In January, Mike Lawlor, under secretary at the state Office of Policy and Management, announced that the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles would permit anyone falling under these new federal guidelines to apply for a driver’s license.
“Obviously, the federal immigration laws are beyond our control, but there are some things that are within our control,” said Lawlor. “In this particular case, the Department of Motor Vehicles has decided to issue licenses to persons who get ‘Deferred Action Status’.”
Carolina Bortolleto, a graduate of Western Connecticut State University and an undocumented immigrant who came from Brazil with her parents, is part of a group of immigration reform activists known as Connecticut Students for a DREAM. She fell into the federal “Deferred Action Status” guidelines and applied for clearance to get Connecticut driver’s license as soon as the new state rules came into in effect.
“I just got approved a week and a half ago,” Bortolleto said. “Being an undocumented immigrant, one of the things that makes you feel different from your classmates is the fact that you are not able to get a license.”
However, Bortolleto is not satisfied with the new status quo. “The fact that undocumented youth are able to get drivers licenses is a step forward,” she said, “but my parents are still limited. They need to drive to work; they need to drive to do grocery shopping.”
Therefore, Bortolleto and others in her situation welcome the new legislative action, especially since it is meant to make more people eligible.
Pat O’Neil, spokesman for House Republicans, said the caucus supports taking up the issue. Regarding the recent changes to eligibility rules, O’Neil said, “This involved a significant change to public policy, including safety policy, which we feel ought to come before the legislature, whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea.”
Candelaria has his own ideas about what might be in the bill, even if he is not sure that they will see the light of day. “My own personal view is that you have to have a passport from the country you’re from, a valid passport. Or the identification that the consulate provides to every immigrant. That will be in the language of the bill. The bill is a draft, a work in progress.”
Candelaria and House Republicans have another shared concern, that the language and content of the bill are acceptable under federal law. Other states, most notably Illinois, have recently moved ahead of the federal government and asserted their authority to use their own criteria to issue licenses. According to a study conducted last year by the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission (LPRAC), Connecticut does have the authority under state regulations to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants.
“It’s not our purview to question whether [immigrants] are legal or not,” said Candelaria. “That’s the federal government’s job to do that.”
By Wayne Jebian