ICIRR holds forum on problems for undocumented immigrants’ driver’s licenses

By Rachel White

Virginia Chavez holds her temporary visitor's driver's license at a community forum hosted by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Virginia Chavez holds her temporary visitor’s driver’s license at a community forum hosted by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Virginia Chavez has lived in Chicago for 18 years and was one of the many undocumented residents of Illinois who used to fret every day on her commute from her first job to her second. Her biggest worry was being pulled over and not having a valid driver’s license to show.

“I’m very scared when I’m driving but I need to work and I need to take my kids to school,” Chavez said.

Now she has one less thing to worry about.

In January Gov. Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 957 into law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain temporary visitor’s driver’s licenses. As a result, Chavez is now driving legally.

Chavez said before that she drove illegally every day. She was stopped by police officers twice.

“I said I forgot my license,” Chavez said. “Now I am at peace because I have my license and insurance.”

Since the implementation of the law, about 70,000 temporary driver’s licenses have been distributed, said Fred Tsao, policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “Which is a substantial number but certainly not everyone that could qualify,” he said.

Tuesday ICIRR held a meeting to discuss the problems with implementation of temporary driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants: difficulty in getting an appointment and the inability of those whose licenses were suspended for furnishing false information to apply for a new one.

The first step in the process of attaining a temporary driver’s license is triggering the most problems. It requires that people seeking those licenses to make an appointment at one of the 36 designated Driver Services facilities statewide, but those appointments are hard to get.

Secretary of State Jesse White has proposed opening three additional sites that would focus exclusively on distributing temporary driver’s licenses, state Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-Cicero) said. When those locations will open is unclear.

The Secretary of State’s office has estimated that there are about 350,000 people eligible to apply for a temporary driver’s license, Hernandez said. “Instead it’s looking like numbers are much higher…they have the task of really having to set up the process for a much larger population than anticipated,” she said.

Opening more facilities would mean more funding is necessary for the program, said state Sen. Dan Harmon (D-Oak Park). Gov. Quinn has already said he would support appropriating more money for the program, he said.

“This is not a permanent expense. We need money for a year or two to deal with this transitional period where we get people their licenses. It’s not a budget buster, it’s not a long term obligation, we just need to get people processed,” said Harmon, who joined the forum by phone.

ICIRR worked hard for more than 12 years to pass the temporary driver’s license law, said Lawrence Benito, chief executive officer for ICIRR. He said approximately 16 percent of people who are eligible for temporary driver’s licenses actually have the licenses – a number Benito said is “way short of our expectations.”

A pending announcement from White is expected to help those with suspensions, Tsao said.

Forgiving suspensions will enable thousands of undocumented people who previously submitted false information in order to obtain a driver’s license — which used to be the only way that undocumented people living in the United States could obtain a driver’s license — the opportunity to reapply using their correct information.

The announcement is expected to detail when and how long people who are currently suspended would have to wait before reapplying for a temporary driver’s license, Tsao said.

The bill permitting temporary driver’s licenses was adapted from an already existing law that made temporary drivers licenses available to people who were lawfully residing in the United States, but were not citizens and therefore did not have Social Security numbers. The new law expanded on the 2006 version to include undocumented immigrants living the United States, Tsao said.

All temporary driver’s licenses are valid for three years and are non-renewable, unlike standard driver’s licenses that are valid for four years and able to be renewed throughout the driver’s life.

Those aren’t the only differences between standard and temporary driver’s licenses.

If a person is caught driving without insurance but has a standard driver’s license, they will be ticketed. Temporary driver’s licenses are only valid if the driver has insurance — if a person with a temporary driver’s license is caught driving without insurance, the driver will be ticketed for both driving without insurance as well as driving without a license.

In addition, temporary driver’s licenses are not a valid form of identification — a temporary license will not permit someone to board an airplane or register to vote.

The goals of the law were to improve traffic safety and unclog the court system.

Judge Thomas Donnelly, who also joined the forum by phone, supported the passage of the temporary driver’s license bill. “The courts need for people to be in the driver license system and out of the criminal justice system,” he said. “It’s a waste of precious court resources.”

The process for obtaining a temporary driver’s license includes a $30 fee, and passing vision, written and road exams.

“I’m glad we’re having problems issuing driver’s licenses rather than fighting over whether or not we should,” Harmon said.

Many problems that surfaced when the law was first enacted have been rectified.

For example, undocumented people were originally required to provide letters from Social Security proving that the person applying for a temporary driver’s license was unable to obtain a Social Security number. This requirement essentially outed the undocumented person to the federal government, Tsao said.