Jose Sanchez and other undocumented immigrants visited the state Capitol Monday to pose a late-session question for legislators: While the state awaits federal action on immigration reform, what should be done now about immigrants who are driving without licenses?

(You don’t have to wait for lawmakers to make up their minds — you can cast your electronic ballot right here in the ballot box, part of the Independent’s “True Vote” experiment in citizen issues elections.)

Sanchez (pictured) was one of dozens of undocumented immigrants and advocates who trekked to the Capitol early Monday to call on Connecticut to start issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Mayors from throughout the state joined them.

A native of Mexico, Sanchez said he needs a license to drive to work at a landscaping company and to shop at the grocery store. He also needs it to drive his family around.

“I need a car every day,” he said. He said he does borrow a car sometimes and drive without a license. With a license, he said, he could register a car in his name and buy insurance. That would be safer, he argued.

The press conference, organized through CONECT (Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut), drew support from eight mayors and a bevy of lawmakers, including New Haven’s Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney and Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey.

The event marked a renewed effort for a New Haven-based campaign that has amassed widespread support yet still faces resistance among both Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol. The campaign is being led by CONECT, a coalition of 28 churches, synagogues and mosques from New Haven and Fairfield counties. New Haven lawmakers, including Looney and state Rep. Juan Candelaria, have spearheaded the legislative effort, using research performed by the Yale Law.

Advocates got 2,000 people to flood a public hearing at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven in March in favor of the idea. The event served as the official public hearing for legislation before the Transportation Committee. A nearly five-hour hearing passed without a single voice of opposition. Despite that public support, however, four bills that would have made undocumented immigrants eligible for licenses quietly died in committee without further public discussion.

Monday marked the beginning of a renewed legislative effort to get a law passed, even though the committee deadlines have passed. Sharkey pledged to find other legislation to which he could attach the bill, which would then be debated by the full House and Senate instead of in committee.

“I am going to do everything I can do to make sure this gets passed in the House,” Sharkey vowed.

“We are a better community when we embrace” immigrants, he said. He said the state should not “place artificial restrictions” on immigrants’ access to “the fruits our state has to offer.”

At a separate press conference Monday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy supported giving undocumented immigrants the licenses.

“I don’t know what where somebody comes from has to do with safety,” Malloy said. “So I want every driver in the state of Connecticut to prove that they’re a safe driver, regardless of where they came from.”

He said if an individual from Australian visits for an extended period of time that person should get a license.

“Why do we even ask where somebody is coming from?” Malloy said. “I don’t feel obligated to do that. What I feel obligated to do is make sure that our highways and byways are being driven by people who have proven they have the skill set necessary to drive our roads.”

The Case For

Looney argued the effort would bill on the work the state did in 2011, when it extended in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrant children. He couched the driver’s license issue as “a matter of public safety.”

If undocumented immigrants have access to driver’s licenses, he argued, they will have to pass driving tests, register their cars and buy insurance. The result: “more trained drivers, more insured drivers,” and less cost pushed onto insured drivers.

An estimated 54,000 Connecticut immigrants are currently barred from getting licenses because of their legal status, according to CONECT. If those drivers bought insurance, Connecticut insurance holders would save $20 million per year in insurance costs, CONECT estimated.

Other arguments for the proposal CONECT put forth:

• Police will have a way to identify drivers they pull over and check their driving records.
• Fewer drivers will flee the scene of a crash.
• Cops won’t be able to use “driving without a license” as a pretext for racial profiling, as they have in East Haven
• Don’t waste jail space on people locked up for driving without a license.
• New registrations would bring in $2 million in state revenue.
• Four states—Washington, New Mexico, Illinois and Maryland—already offer licenses to undocumented immigrants.
• “Immigrants who can drive legally will be more likely to work, spend and contribute to our economy.”

“This will grow Connecticut,” said Mayor John DeStefano, who led the state in immigrant-friendly policy when in 2007 he created a municipal identification for city residents, regardless of immigration status.

DeStefano was joined by the mayors of Hartford, New Britain, Meriden, Willimantic, New London and Bridgeport. Waterbury’s mayor also supports the initiative, according to CONECT.

“The city of Bridgeport was built on waves of immigrants,” said Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch. He called immigrant driver’s licenses a matter of “enlightened self-interest” for cities—in part because newly registered driver’s would start paying property tax on their cars.

A Westport rabbi, a Norwalk pastor, and two New Haven preachers also spoke in support.

“Our folks just want to wait in line at the DMV like everybody else,” said Father Jim Manship, who has taken a leading role in the campaign.

In a Q & A session, WTNH’s Mark Davis asked a question that went unaddressed in the press conference: If the issue has such widespread support, why did all the legislation die in committee?

Sharkey replied that the committee “got caught up in discussion” of other controversial legislation and didn’t get to pass the driver’s licenses bills through.

So you “ran out of time?” Davis asked.

“Yes,” Sharkey replied.

“Isn’t that an excuse” that lawmakers give when there are really other reasons that a bill died? Davis asked.

“Yes, it is,” Sharkey conceded. “But not in this case.”
The Case Against

Republican State Sen. Toni Boucher, of Wilton, later said that’s not the full story.

The committee wrapped up work on all its bills one week before its deadline, so it had plenty of time to address the matter. And Democrats enjoy a strong majority on the committee of 20 to 13, she noted. If they agreed on the topic, they could have easily passed a bill. The committee let the bills die without any deliberation after the public hearing in New Haven. By circumventing the committee process, and taking the fight to the House and Senate, where their odds at passage may be better, Boucher noted, Democrats have avoided discussion about disagreements—even those within their own party—over the bills.

“Some people don’t want to hear the fact that it’s controversial,” she said.

Boucher raised several concerns with the proposal. Giving undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses would cause “confusion,” she said, opening up the possibility of voter fraud and employment fraud.

Looney clarified that—like licenses currently issued to permanent residents and other non-citizens here in the U.S. legally—the licenses would specify on them that they are for driving purposes only. And a voter would have no way of getting on the voting rolls, he said, because the voting registrars would not accept the licenses as identification for voting purposes.

Boucher said she wasn’t sure that people would know enough to treat the new immigrant driver’s licenses differently from normal driver’s licenses. She said the misuse of a driver’s license could lead to violations of federal law. Boucher said she supports legislation under way in Congress to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

She said Connecticut should not get ahead of the federal government’s process of addressing illegal immigration. “I’m uncomfortable with preempting the federal process that is in place that would decide this.” Doing so “would undermine state laws that talk about the prohibition of employment, the prohibition of voting, the access of certain services that are available only to legal citizens,” she said.

Sen. Looney said the legislation would help immigrants follow the law, not break it. He said opponents are trying to “impose an ideological view on a situation that needs to be viewed pragmatically.”

Ivan L. an undocumented driver from Wallingford, agreed. As politicians debate the issue, he’s already on the road, driving without a license. He said he needs the car to get to his job at a warehouse in New Haven. He said he already pays income taxes and property tax on his car. He’s going to keep driving illegally, he said, until the state lets him register his car and pay insurance.

Then, he said, “it will be safer for all of us.”
Case For, With Background Checks

House Minority Leader Larry Cafero said he met Monday afternoon with New Haven’s State Rep. Juan Candelaria to discuss the topic.

Cafero said he sees merit in a lot of the arguments for immigrant driver’s licenses, especially for the public safety reasons advocates have raised.

“I’m keeping an open mind” towards the licenses, he said. But he’d like to see several conditions:

• Undocumented immigrants should undergo background checks before getting licenses, to make sure they have a clean criminal record.
• The licenses should clearly state that they are not to be used for voting.
• Undocumented immigrants should have to renew their licenses every three years, instead of every six.

He said undocumented immigrants should have these special rules “unless and until they reach the point where they are legal residents” because as undocumented immigrants, they fly under government radar. They should “present themselves to the DMV on a more frequent basis” so that the government can make sure they are “obeying the rules of the road.”