Irish played key role in new Illinois undocumented drivers licenses law


The Illinois House of Representatives made history last  Tuesday, as it voted 65 to 46 to approve a temporary visitor's driver’s license (TVDL) SB 957 for the undocumented.  The Senate had voted last month to approve the bill by 41 to 14, with one abstention.  Illinois is the 5th state in the nation after Tennessee, New Mexico, Washington and Utah to approve such a measure but the only one in recent times to make such a bold move.  The bill’s passage has been hailed by immigrant advocates as a milestone for Illinois and a measure of things to come for comprehensive immigration reform in Washington D.C.  Other states may take Illinois’ lead and follow.

Chicago Irish Immigrant Support (CIIS) Executive Director Breandan Magee was in the chamber for the count and had this to say, “This vote is historic in its reach and is a bell weather for national sentiment on immigration reform and immigrants’ rights.  The tide is turning and Americans of all political persuasions see this as a fight for human rights.  I am very hopeful looking forward to immigration reform at the national level but today Illinois just made its roads safer and offers the 250,000 undocumented immigrants driving on our roads the chance to get a license and become insured”.

The bipartisan bill’s passage was the result of a long campaign that kicked off in the summer, led by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrants and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). 

ICIRR is an umbrella group of over 130 agencies in Illinois that advocate for immigrants’ rights; it counts CIIS and the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform as long standing members.

The Irish voice was a loud one in this debate with CIIS and Billy Lawless of the Chicago Celts fielding members for days of action in Springfield and participating in mass call ins to press legislators to back the measure.  CIIS Board President Cyril Regan and Executive Director Breandan Magee spent the last two days before the vote in Springfield with a contingent of grassroots supporters from ICIRR to make the final case to lawmakers that the bill was good for Illinois and for road safety in general. 

The vote however was still undecided just before the House convened, with key legislators still unsure as to how they would cast their vote.  Representative Fred Crespo was one such lawmaker who was a definite no before the crucial vote.  Regan and Magee accompanied Fr. Brendan Curran of St. Pius Parish Chicago to the representative’s office with only five minutes to sway him before he rushed off to the final session of the 97th Congress.  It turned out that Crespo, the son of a Puerto Rican Korean War veteran had been born, baptized and confirmed in St Pius’s and he graciously listened to the three Irishmen plead the case for the bill.  The bill’s passage would have direct impact on the over 5,000 undocumented Irish men and women in Chicagoland and has stringent controls in place to avoid document fraud.

From the floor of the House an emotive Crespo acknowledged the visit of Fr. Curran and the Irish and thanked them for their passion on the issue.  In the end he voted with his conscience and voted yes.  Another representative that the trio visited in the eleventh hour was Emily McAsey who had been a no on this issue and had voted consistently against pro immigrant measures in previous votes.  She also listened intently and had questions answered.  She had been visibly emotional in previous meetings in her district when undocumented immigrants told their stories of parents deported after being pulled over for a traffic violation.  Representative McAsey also voted yes. 

In total 65 lawmakers voted yes after listening to the impassioned debate on the House floor from those opposed and those in favor of the initiative.  Over 400,000 immigrants are deported annually and many such removals are triggered by a routine traffic stop.  Anyone apprehended while driving without a license may be booked and brought back to the station where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can put a hold on him/her and begin the deportation process.  Families are torn apart and as one advocate put it “ we are creating orphans with parents” as US citizen children remain here while one or more of their parents are sent back to their country of origin.

Back in the chamber a gasp of disbelief and elation rang out from the packed public galleries as the final vote flashed up on the electronic screen.  Everyone in the chamber knew that history had just been made and the tears followed amid the beaming smiles.  It was a highly charged crescendo to a long fought campaign for the bill’s ardent supporters.

Immigrant advocates in Illinois had been fighting for this measure for over 13 years; the last time that this proposal came up for a vote in 2007 it was defeated by a handful of votes in the House.  This time around a strong campaign led by ICIRR and key Irish community leaders built a coalition of supporters who persuaded many legislators to vote in favor.  Key proponents of the bill included Senate President John Cullerton, Representative Eddie Acevedo, Speaker Michael Madigan, House Minority Leader Tom Cross, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, the Latino Caucus, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Governor Pat Quinn, Former Governor Jim Edgar, Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown, Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.