A bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license received final passage Wednesday night as a group of advocates watched from the Senate balcony.
Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut, a nonpartisan interfaith group, pushed for the legislation in meetings with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and encouraged them to move forward with it. The organization of about a 15,000 people was founded in 2011, but this was their first full-court press for legislation.
It was an uphill battle. All four bills that would have permitted these drivers’ licenses died in the Transportation Committee, but the organization with the support of Rep. Juan Candelaria of New Haven was determined to find a vehicle for passage.
Rev. James Manship of St. Rose of Lima Church, one of the founding members of CONECT, said the legislation was “not perfect,” but it “moves us ahead.”
It’s not perfect because it doesn’t go into effect until January 2015, Manship said. But he said he understands that the Department of Motor Vehicles is undergoing a significant computer conversion, which made immediate implementation cost-prohibitive.
According to the fiscal note the implementation of the bill will cost the state $1.3 million in fiscal year 2015 because the DMV will have to hire an additional 18 employees. But the same fiscal note anticipates a revenue gain of $1.5 million in 2015 and $2.8 million in 2016 in drivers license and registration fees.
The licenses will not be available for federal identification purposes, voting, or eligibility for public benefits.
“They are purely for driver identification,” Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, said.
The bill passed the House last week 74-55 after more than seven hours of debate. The Senate joined them in passing it 19-16 after nearly six hours of debate. Sens. Paul Doyle and Joan Hartley were the only two Democrats to vote against the measure.
For Jeimy Zepeda and her husband Armando Morales, the issue is personal, not only because they belong to St. Rose of Lima Church, but because they’ve been hit by an unregistered, possibly unlicensed driver who fled the scene of the accident. They got stuck with medical bills as a result when police were never able to track down the driver.
Zepeda and Morales said they’re proud the issue was raised by their church. They said they see how hard it is for some parishioners not to have a drivers’ license in a state that makes it difficult to use public transit.
But not all the Senators were able to see the legislation as a measure to improve road safety.
Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said in the six months the 9/11 terrorists were tourists “11 of the 19 were able to obtain drivers’ licenses in the United States.”
“When we compare this to the 90 days in which a current illegal immigrant would have to prove residency in order to obtain the issuance of a drivers’ license that is in this bill—one has to stop and pause,” Boucher, an Italian immigrant, said.
She wondered “what would prevent current illegal aliens in committing fraud as simple as offering an incomplete or inaccurate email address to the DMV to prove their 90 day tenure, or by offering a different name?”
Advocates felt the analogy was offensive because it accuses all undocumented immigrants of being criminals, when through no fault of their own they’ve been unable to obtain legal status.
Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, said it’s an issue of safety.
“I wouldn’t want to get in an airplane with a pilot who doesn’t have a license,” Meyer said. “Whether that pilot is an immigrant or not is irrelevant.”
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.
He said the issue is not immigrants it’s safety. And already the hurdles an individual over the age of 16 years old has to go through to obtain a license is arduous.
Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, said the state can’t pretend the problem doesn’t exist.
LeBeau pointed out that under the bill in order to get a three-year license you have to pass a “knowledge” test which is already given in 21 different languages. He maintained that the number of accidents in other states that allow for this population to obtain licenses has gone down significantly.
“It just increases safety for all of us,” he added.
Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said this is a “modest step” for a population that desires to do things legally.
“We should not allow federal immigration law blind us to the realities that are present in our state,” he said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has expressed his support for the legislation.
“This bill is first and foremost about public safety,” Malloy said in a statement. “It’s about knowing who is driving on our roads, and doing everything we can to make sure those drivers are safe and that they’re operating registered, insured vehicles.”
When Malloy signs the bill, Connecticut will join Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, and Washington in approving a drivers’ license for undocumented immigrants.