Illinois’ top leaders said Tuesday that they will push to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants — testing federal strictures and becoming the latest sign that the pendulum has swung away from Arizona-style crackdowns and toward those pursuing a softer line on immigration.
Surrounded by Republicans and Democrats at a news conference, state Senate President John Cullerton said he will try to pass legislation in the coming weeks, and Gov. Pat Quinn said he will sign it if it reaches his desk.
“This is a safety issue that impacts every driver in Illinois, and we should join together to take swift action to save lives,” said Mr. Quinn, a Democrat. “Making sure all motorists, regardless of their background, are licensed and insured will drive economic growth and ease the financial burden on all Illinois motorists.”
The move represents the first major backtrack by a state since the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nearly a decade ago, when the hijackers used licenses, often obtained by fraud, to board the airplanes they used to target the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and, potentially, the U.S. Capitol or White House.
In the wake of those attacks, the national commission established to look into problems urged the federal government to set a national standard for identification cards such as driver’s licenses. In response, Congress wrote the Real ID Act, which included the requirement that federally compliant licenses be valid only while someone is in the country legally.
Many states moved to embrace that standard, and now only two states — New Mexico and Washington — issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants without any demarcation. Utah issues licenses to illegal immigrants, but those are marked as noncompliant.
Janice Kephart, former counsel to the Sept. 11 Commission, who focused on the terrorists’ travel, said Illinois’ move dents the federal law.
“I wouldn’t say it’s getting rid of Real ID, but it’s numbing Real ID,” she said.
For most of the past decade, states seemed to be moving in the other direction. Arizona, followed by a handful of other states, enacted laws cracking down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants and granting police broader powers to check the identities of suspected illegal immigrants. State and local police departments also flooded the federal government with requests to partner on enforcing immigration laws.
The Supreme Court this summer upheld a key part of Arizona’s law that allowed police to perform the identity checks, though the justices struck down efforts to write into law state penalties for being here illegally.
But states already started moving in the other direction.
Several states, including Maryland, enacted legislation granting in-state tuition rates to some illegal immigrants. After President Obama announced that he would halt deportations for most young illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by age 16, a handful of states said they would move to grant those folks driver’s licenses.
Illinois, though, is going the furthest, saying it wants all drivers to be licensed if they are on Illinois roads.
Even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who during his time in Congress and as chief of staff in Mr. Obama’s White House was seen as a major roadblock to Democrats’ immigration legislation, backed the call for licenses.
“I strongly support state legislation that will allow every Chicagoan, regardless of legal status, to enjoy the rights and responsibilities that come with a driver’s license,” he said. “I will be a strong advocate for this bill as we work to make Chicago the most immigrant-friendly city in the country.”
No legislation has been written, so it remains to be seen how Illinois handles the details. Local news reports said illegal immigrants likely would join a program that allows legal foreign visitors to get temporary licenses.
Ms. Kephart said if they follow Utah’s model and make it clear the license is not valid for federal purposes such as boarding an aircraft or entering a federal building, it would not run afoul of Real ID.
The issue of licenses have been touchy for years. Driver’s licenses are considered an entry into much of American society, and those who favor a crackdown on illegal immigration say granting them to illegal immigrants helps lawbreakers blend in.
But those who support the idea say it makes all communities safer by reducing the number of uninsured drivers and giving police a way to identify people accurately.
Illinois officials said there are 250,000 unlicensed immigrants in their state, and licensing and insuring half of them would save state drivers $46 million a year in premium payments.
How a new policy would mesh with the federal Real ID law remains to be seen.
Congress passed Real ID in 2005, but has repeatedly delayed full implementation as states have complained about the burden of compliance.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and author of Real ID, wasn’t available for comment Tuesday, a spokeswoman said.
The current deadline is Jan. 15, though Ms. Kephart said that likely will have to be pushed back again because the Homeland Security Department’s compliance office has been cut to the bone, and it couldn’t even handle implementation.
Ms. Kephart said states that have moved to grant licenses see themselves as trapped.
“I think you’re seeing them concerned that the president is going to smack their hands for not complying with his view of what immigration should look like,” she said. “I think they’re feeling like they don’t have a choice at this point. They’ve seen what happens to states when they refuse, and they’re certainly not going to fight that in the driver’s licenses realm.”