Illinois’ Governor Pat Quinn presided over a packed room in a south side Chicago immigrant center on Sunday January 27, when he signed into law a much vaunted bill that will provide temporary drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants in his state. 

An impressive who’s who of Illinois politicians joined him on stage in support of the move and to express solidarity with the immigrant population, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Secretary of State Jesse White, Senate President Cullerton,  Asst. Majority leader Acevedo ,Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, House Minority Leader Tom Cross, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, Latino Caucus Co-Chairs Tony Munoz and Toni Berrios and Representative Lisa Hernandez.

Governor Quinn lauded those who worked on the bill and welcomed its arrival on his desk stating that Illinois was a leader in immigrant rights and a model for other states to follow.  Illinois also passed the DREAM Act in 2010, which makes it possible for young people, brought here illegally by their parents when they were children, to secure a work permit.  The Governor added that the President should be proud of his home state’s record on immigrant rights as he prepares to tackle comprehensive immigration reform in Washington DC this year.

Read More: Irish played key role in new Illinois undocumented drivers licenses law

Mayor Rahm Emmanuel also took to the stage to thank all those involved in bringing the bill past the finish line and spoke of his own immigrant grandfather coming to Chicago to escape anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century.  He spoke of America being a nation of dreamers, a nod to the term used to describe the high school children eligible for the DREAM Act, and added that all of those who came to these shores did so with the dream that their children would better off than they. 

“Only in America are these things possible” he retorted.  He also reaffirmed his own commitment to keeping Chicago one of the most immigrant friendly cities in America and acknowledged the city’s open door policy to immigrants whether they hail from Ireland or Mexico.

The Irish were represented in the front row by Billy Lawless Chairman of the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform; he was accompanied by fellow Celts board members Cyril Regan and Breandán Magee.  The Chicago Celts played a pivotal role in the bill’s passage and joined forces with other immigrant groups to form a strong and formidable coalition that garnered bipartisan support in the legislature.  Regan and Magee spent the final two days before the vote in the House of Representatives in Springfield pressing legislators to support the historic piece of legislation.

The vote count was tight up until the final hour and in a last ditch effort from all involved, including the Celts, key legislators swayed from hard no’s to the yes camp.  The bill, which had earlier passed the Senate, cleared the House by 65 to 46 votes.

Asked about the Irish voice in the debate Celts Chairman Billy Lawless poignantly noted “The Irish have once again played an instrumental role in a key piece of legislation, which will directly benefit the 5000 Irish undocumented living in Illinois who up to now could not get a driver’s license.”  He went on to add “the key to our success in Illinois was strength in unity with our immigrant cousins from other countries…we made key alliances and spoke with one voice and in the end we prevailed.  Illinois is once again a model for the nation and other states on how to move things forward.”

The bill allows any immigrant in Illinois to secure a temporary visitors’ driver’s license (TVDL) 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 licenses will prevent drivers from being incarcerated for not having a license if pulled over, which will in turn reduce the number of families torn apart by deportation.  They will be made available October 1, 2013.

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 in Illinois 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.
Proponents of the bill see its passage as a precursor to immigration reform at the national level, which is picking up steam as we speak.  Today, Monday January 28 a group of eight Democratic and Republican senators unveiled their plans for comprehensive immigration reform that would provide a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the shadows.  While a drop in the ocean such moves would also affect the 50,000 Irish men and women who find themselves in immigration limbo.

President Obama, buoyed by his recent electoral success and ready to expend some of his political capital, will announce his own plans for immigration reform in Las Vegas on Tuesday.  He promised such moves in his first term but was unable to deliver, however the stage is now set for real progress on the issue.  Both parties recognize the growing importance of changing demographics and the Latino vote, but none more so than the Republicans who lost the Latino vote by 70 to 30 in the recent presidential run-off.  They understand only too well that the White House may evade them again if they do not appeal more to Latinos who currently find the GOP a cold house for their interests.

As the debate moves to Washington DC the Irish and the Chicago Celts have their sights firmly set on immigration reform but with an added element: namely the E3 visa.  The hope is to add the E3 bill, modeled after a similar E3 visa for Australia, to any immigration reform bill.  The E3 visa for the Irish would be a reciprocal visa that would allow up to 10,000 Irish nationals the chance to come to the USA to work for up to two years. 

The visa would be renewable after two years and would include a three-tiered educational requirement for applicants.  The visa would be available to those with a high school diploma, a vocational qualification or a third level degree.  The Irish government has firmly stood behind the E3 and the bill has strong support on the Hill among friends of Ireland.   There has never been a better time to push forward with comprehensive immigration reform and the Irish are poised to once again punch above their weight in this debate.

*Breandán Magee is the Executive Director of the Chicago Irish Immigrant Support (CIIS)