by Joseph De Avila for The Wall Street Journal

May 5, 2013


Connecticut Democrats are rallying around a plan that would allow people who are in the U.S. illegally to get driver's licenses, making the state one of several to consider the idea this year.

Such proposals sometimes have ignited political wars. In 2007, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, was forced to abandon the idea in the face of mounting criticism. And for the past four years, Republican New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has tried to repeal a 2003 law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.

How divisive the issue may become in Connecticut isn't yet clear, in part because the language of the legislation is still being drafted. Some Connecticut Republicans said they would withhold support until a concrete proposal comes forward.

"We certainly don't want to encourage people to drive without license or insurance," said Republican state Rep. David Scribner, a member of the transportation committee. "The other side is that people have raised the concern: 'Do we really want to create a carve out for people who are here illegally?'"

The transportation panel considered several bills this year that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to drive, but didn't vote on any of them. Proponents now plan to introduce it as an amendment to a separate piece of legislation.

A spokesman for Republican Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said he was still studying the proposal.

The push comes as at least eight other states, including California, Minnesota and Massachusetts, weigh similar measures, following three others where such legislation has won approval this year.

"This year it seems like there is a political opening and a new view of the issue that has taken hold," said Tanya Broder, senior staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, who cited the ongoing debate in Washington about legislation that would change national immigration policy.

About 54,000 illegal immigrants are now old enough in Connecticut to apply for driver's licenses.

The plan's advocates say it would ensure these immigrants are given proper driving tests and allow them to get car insurance. The proposal could also provide additional state revenue from registration fees and car taxes.

"This is a population that has been here for many years and must drive to conduct their lives, and bringing them into the system will benefit the general public," said the Rev. James Manship, co-chairman of Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut, a coalition of religious groups.

Opponents will have an uphill political fight.

The proposal has the backing of leaders of the state House of Representatives and the Senate, both controlled by Democrats. Gov. Dannel Malloy, also a Democrat, also has said he was supportive.

"I think there is a sentiment, within the House anyway, that this is a common-sense proposal," said House Speaker Brendan Sharkey. "The reason for not doing it seems to be based on fear and not practical reality."

There are about 120,000 illegal immigrants in Connecticut, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. That's up from 75,000 in 2000 and 20,000 in 1990.

Karen Tello, a 20-year-old college student from New Haven, Conn., drove without a license for six months in 2012 to her job as restaurant hostess.

Ms. Tello said she was in fear whenever she drove.

"My parents were worried about me," said Ms. Tello, who moved to the U.S. with her family from Ecuador when she was 6 years old.

She later got a license after she qualified for the federal program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows young illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. and obtain work-authorization forms and Social Security cards.

Her father, however, still has to drive to work without a license, Ms. Tello said.

Her mother doesn't drive, leaving Ms. Tello with the responsibility of taking her 10-year-old brother to school, doctors' visits and swimming lessons.

Early versions of the Connecticut plan would require applicants to prove their identity through documents such as passports or consulate cards. They would also have to verify they are Connecticut residents with documents such as lease agreements or utility bills. Applicants would also have to pass a background check for aggravated felony assaults and be screened against terrorism watch lists.

The drivers licenses would look like a noncitizen license and would likely be valid for less than the standard six-year term.

The growing numbers of Hispanics in Connecticut and how those increases will affect voter registration will likely play into the political calculus for Republicans on this issue, said Gary Rose, chairman of the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University. Census figures from 2011 show the state is home to about 494,000 Hispanic residents, up from 331,000 in 2000 and 213,000 in 1990.

"There will be objections" to the proposal, Mr. Rose said, "but I think a number of Republicans may end up tagging along."

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