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Pictured immediately after the historic IL House vote (Left to Right) Chicago Irish Immigrant Support (CIIS) Executive Director Breandán Magee, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, CIIS Board President Cyril Regan Photo by: Breandán Magee

Irish played key role in new Illinois undocumented drivers licenses law

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Pictured immediately after the historic IL House vote (Left to Right) Chicago Irish Immigrant Support (CIIS) Executive Director Breandán Magee, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, CIIS Board President Cyril Regan Photo by: Breandán Magee

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.

This formidable coalition was strengthened by the support of the teachers unions, hospital associations, the labor unions, chambers of commerce, the state police association and the 130 member agencies of ICIRR.

The bill allows any immigrant in Illinois to secure a temporary visitor's’ driver’s license if he or she can provide proof of residency in Illinois for the last year, a valid passport or consular ID and pass all road tests.  The license will cost $30 but will appear somewhat different to the regular IL driver’s license; they will be colored purple as opposed to the red of regular licenses.  The TVDL already exists for foreign nationals who are here on student visas or temporary work visas.  It will not be valid for proof of identity to board a plane or enter a federal building and will be marked “not valid for identification”.  It can however be used as a bond card in the event that the holder is pulled over by a police officer and given that it is the same TVDL available to foreign students and visa holders law enforcement cannot assume that the holder is undocumented.

The Secretary of State estimates that the new licenses move will cost $800,000 in its first year but even if only 30,000 of the estimated 250,000 undocumented drivers apply and pay the $30 fee, the initiative will be revenue neutral and may even turn a profit.  This was a key provision for many lawmakers concerned about the dire fiscal problems faced by the state of Illinois.

Supporters of this bill took a moment to savor its passage but in true form those committed to immigration reform met just two days after the vote to chart the course ahead for a federal bill to legalize the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in our country.   CIIS Board Chairman and Executive Director Breandan Magee were again among those present to declare 2013 as the year that Congress acts. 

Magee said, “Be prepared in this session of Congress to see the same momentum build as in 2007 with large marches here in Chicago and in Washington DC .. the President has stated that immigration reform will  be his top priority after the fiscal cliff and we are ready to mobilize and support him in that endeavor.”

The stage has now been set with Illinois’ historic passage of SB 957 and with Republicans in the US Congress mouthing words of compromise on immigration reform, after an unprecedented Latino voter turn-out in favor of Democrats and their pro immigrant platform, signs are good.  The Irish have been center stage in this debate as it has raged throughout the years and they will continue to punch above their weight to do, as Organizer Rebecca Shi of ICIRR said,“ whatever it takes”. 

That fighting Irish spirit and Celtic tenacity has brought generations of Irish immigrants to these shores in search of a better life and today’s generation deserve no less a chance at the American dream.  Today Irish proponents of immigration reform stand shoulder to shoulder with all immigrants in the melting pot spirit that defines what it means to be American.  Times and politics may change but that exceptional-ism of America and her ideals never does and SB 957 goes a long way to proving it.

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