Christine Stuart photo
Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven (Christine Stuart photo)

Connecticut voters may not be ready according to polling data, but that didn’t stop the House from pushing forward with a vote on a billthat would give undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain a driver’s license.

After more than seven hours of debate the House passed the measure on a 74-55 vote around 5:45 a.m.

For some it was an issue of public safety. For others it was an indication that the federal government needs to move faster toward comprehensive immigration reform.

Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, introduced the bill. He said the legislation is about public safety and bringing the immigrant community out of the shadows.

As of 2010, nearly 120,000 unauthorized immigrants resided in Connecticut, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center. About 54,000 of them currently drive on Connecticut roads without documentation, according to research by the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School.

The bill would give undocumented immigrants living in the state for more than 90 days the option to apply for a driver’s license. The application process would include a sworn affidavit to seek U.S. citizenship. If an individual was convicted of a felony in the state of Connecticut, they would not be allowed to receive a license.The license would be renewed every three years as opposed to every six years for U.S. citizens.

A Republican amendment to expand the felony background checks to include more than just the state of Connecticut failed.

Candelaria said the bill is about the child who testified in March at Wilbur Cross High School and said he’s fearful for his mother who drives and is undocumented. He said the child’s biggest fear was becoming homeless if his mother was arrested and deported.

Republican lawmakers who said they wanted to allow undocumented workers get their licenses questioned Candelaria for more than seven hours about residency requirements, background checks, and insurance requirements.

Not one person spoke against measure at that five-hour public hearing before the Transportation Committee. But none of the four bills proposed made it through the committee, forcing proponents to tack it onto a generic motor vehicle bill.

The partisan divide over the bill stood in stark contrast to a vote earlier in the day that would prohibit, under some circumstances, any law enforcement officer in the state from telling U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that they detained an undocumented immigrant. That bill cleared the House 132-0 with less than a half-hour of debate Wednesday.

House Minority Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, was not pleased with how the bill was developed or the process by which it ended up on the House floor Wednesday evening.

Cafero said he asked Candelaria if he could work on the bill with him. He suggested that the legislature form a task force and study the issue until next legislative session. He argued it could still be implemented by the 2015 date in the bill debated Wednesday night into Thursday morning. Cafero said his proposition was rejected.

Candelaria said the bill is about public safety. He said it is anticipated that there will be a reduction in the number of violations for driving without a license. In 2012, there were 742 violations for driving without a license that generated $84,000 in revenue.

Christine Stuart photo
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero (Christine Stuart photo)

But Cafero said that by not giving Republicans a seat at the table, it became a political issue and “that stinks because there are a lot of people here who want to do this and do it the right way.”

He questioned an appearance by Democratic State Central Committee Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo and DSCC Executive Director Jonathan Harris. A spokesman for House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said the duo were not at the Capitol to speak about this legislation, a statement Harris confirmed Thursday morning.

“We would say we are disappointed in Rep. Cafero and the House for opposing such a common sense public safety policy, but it comes as little surprise since the CT GOP is more a Party of Gov. Scott Walker, Gov. Rick Perry and Rush Limbaugh than of Yankee Republicans like Prescott Bush,” Harris said.

But Cafero said “this is all about votes and politics.”

On the public policy side, Cafero argued that there still isn’t enough information about the number of people this bill would impact and what it would cost the state to hire new Department of Motor Vehicle workers to handle the licensing. He said the study would give the members of the legislature time to educate themselves and the public about this issue. But proponents felt that was an attempt to slow the process.

“The federal law is broken,” Cecilio Ceario of St. Rose of Lima Church and CONECT said. “We have many members of our parish that have been here on a work permit for 10 to 20 years and cannot have a license.”

He said these are people who want to register their vehicle and take responsibility for their actions. He said the public would be shocked at how much some undocumented workers have to pay in order to register their vehicles through Connecticut residents.

Ceario was one of a handful of advocates who watched the House vote from the balcony Thursday morning.

“This should be addressed in a comprehensive manner, not a rushed through piece of legislation,” Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Fairfield, said. “The bill is based on a promise, a hope, a prayer and nothing more.”

He said states that have passed similar legislation have mandated registration and the purchase of insurance.

According to the Office of Legislative Research, there are now four states with statutes or regulations that implicitly give undocumented immigrants access to driving privileges: Illinois, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington. Seven states have reversed the decision to give undocumented workers driver’s licenses.

Cafero said the study could be completed before the start of next year’s legislative session and it wouldn’t impact the legislation that is expected to go into effect in January 2015.

But the issue has drawn crowds larger than 2,000 to public hearings on the bill and dozens more to rallies at the state Capitol. There was no organized opposition to the bills.

Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, who introduced two of the four bills, has said that undocumented immigrants are going to drive with or without a license.

“Whatever may be your view on federal immigration policy going forward, these individuals are residents of our communities and the question we need to answer is, ‘what policies regarding these residents will best serve the goals of enhanced public safety and sound public policy?’” Looney said in his testimony before the Transportation Committee.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. who implemented a citywide ID program for undocumented immigrants in 2007, applauded passage of the bill.

“Like the municipal ID, granting immigrants driver licenses regardless of immigration status is good policy,” DeStefano said in a statement.

But voters aren’t quite there yet.

A Quinnipiac University poll in March found that 65 percent of voters oppose giving undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses. Only 31 percent approve of the idea. An unscientific New Haven Independent poll came up with similar results. According to that poll 64.16 percent of more than 3,000 voters oppose the idea and 25.75 percent supported it.

The bill now goes to the Senate.