Not So Smooth Rollout For Drivers Licenses For Illegals

Nov 21, 2013

An Illinois law passed last January could let up to half-a-million undocumented immigrants drive legally for the first time. But many of them are having a hard time signing up for the license. And, now, a Chicago-area sheriff says the state is rolling out the program too slowly.

LOPEZ: Yo soy la responsable de llevar mis hijos a escuela . . .

This stay-at-home mom on Chicago’s Southwest Side says her days begin with taking her kids to school.

And, three times a week, she drives her father to a clinic for dialysis.

But every time she hits the road, she worries cops will pull her over.

LOPEZ: Con tanta ansiedad de manejar seguros . . .

Like hundreds of thousands of Illinois residents who are in the country illegally, she doesn’t have a driver’s license.

I’ll call her María López.

She spoke on condition I not use her real name.

López’s got a cream-colored Ford Expedition, a big car.

She let me ride shotgun the other day.

López wants one of the driver’s licenses that Illinois is planning for immigrants like her.

To get that license, Secretary of State Jesse White’s office is requiring an appointment.

López signed up the first day she could.

LOPEZ: Hablé el día 12 de noviembre . . .

That was last week.

And she thought she got a date.

LOPEZ: No me dieron una confirmación de que yo tenía esa cita entonces estoy en el limbo . . .

But the Web site seemed to crap out.

Now she’s not sure where she stands.

Many other immigrants who want a license haven’t gotten even that far.

White’s office acknowledges there could be 500,000 people eligible.

But, for at least a few more weeks, the Secretary of State is scheduling just 120 appointments a day. Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran says that's not good enough.

"I would expect this type of a pace if the law passed in Alabama, where we have a hostile immigrant tone. But, in Illinois, there was overwhelming support for this legislation," Curran said.

Curran says it’s getting hard to promote the licenses among immigrants.

He says they have a lot of fear and a lot of questions.

"What if I go into this driver’s license facility, can they use whatever I say against me in a later process for citizenship?’ ‘What if I’ve driven without a license before, what will happen to me?’ And so they have these concerns and if they see these long delays, when now is the time where they’re looking at this, they may not ever avail themselves, " Curran said.

Riding with López — she’s that Chicago mom — I can’t help but notice she obeys the speed limit and signals all her turns.

But Sheriff Curran points out there are plenty of unlicensed drivers who don’t.

"And that’s not good for public safety. We want people to have taken a driver’s test. We want people to have insurance. We want people to understand the rules of the road," Curran said.

But Secretary of State spokesman Henry Haupt says they need to proceed with caution.

"It would be irresponsible and reckless for our office to roll out a program of this magnitude statewide without first thoroughly testing it," Haupt said.

Haupt says his office has needed all 10 months since Governor Pat Quinn signed the bill into law.

And Haupt promises that, by February, the secretary of state will be setting licensing appointments at 36 facilities statewide.

"Keep in mind that the state of California has been given approximately two years to implement their program. And we’ve had to set all of this up without any additional revenue provided by the General Assembly. To just open up facilities throughout the state without testing it and potentially have thousands upon thousands of individuals showing up at facilities wouldn’t do anyone any good," Haupt said.

There's at least one Chicago-area sheriff who doesn’t mind the Secretary of State’s pace if it helps avoid mistakes.

But that approach will keep many immigrant drivers unlicensed for months to come.

LOPEZ: Yo tengo 23 años en Estados Unidos . . .

López says after 23 years in the United States, she deserves a license.

And for her peace of mind, she says, she needs one sooner rather than later.