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Legislation proposes driver’s licenses for immigrants

Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, North Providence, sponsors third such bill in two years

The push to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants in Rhode Island gained new traction last week, as Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, North Providence, introduced legislation on the matter for the third time in two years.

The bill, proposed Jan. 14, would extend to working Rhode Islanders who are unable to prove legal U.S. residence — a group numbering around 20,000 — the right to a driver’s privilege license. Similar proposals in the past have failed — in May 2013 and February 2014, measures were tabled without ever getting to a vote.

Ciccone highlighted the differences between the current proposal and previous failed attempts, noting that the state registry and police — groups with past objections to these efforts — are being incorporated into discussions about the bill. “I worked with Governor Chafee and representatives of the agencies to craft a bill that would be plausible for everyone,” he said.

Substantive changes between past bills and the current iteration include additions to the list of documents that qualify an applicant to receive a license. Unexpired consular IDs from certain Latin American countries, foreign driver’s licenses with international driving permits, certified court records and U.S. military identification cards would now allow an individual to obtain a license under the proposed legislation, Ciccone said.

Ciccone cited road safety and state revenue as the primary merits of the bill. “Right now, we know that there are individuals that are driving — due to the fact that they can’t get a license — without a license, registration or insurance,” he said. “I would hope that after three years, people would catch on that this would make the road safer.”

The issue of road safety was also touted as a benefit of the bill by Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The most important thing it would do is promote public safety,” Brown said. “By giving them that opportunity (to acquire a license), we not only ensure that they have a license, but that they’re likely to be safer drivers,” he said.

Shifts in public opinion on the issue of immigration could also pave the way for the current measure’s success, Brown said. “As time goes on, there’s more and more sympathy for passing a bill like this,” he said. “It is a matter of educating people as to why it’s a good idea and why it helps everybody to pass (this) bill.”

Opponents of the bill see safety and fiscal concerns for the state as outweighing any of the bill’s advantages.

Terry Gorman, executive director of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, emphasized the security risks that could arise from heightening the incentives for undocumented immigrants to come to the state. “The border patrol says that there are more people entering the United States over our southern border from countries other than Mexico and Latin America,” he said. “If they make it to Rhode Island, we could be giving these driver’s permits to terrorists.”

Rhode Island’s existing technological infrastructure would be overwhelmed by the amount of requests the bill would produce, Gorman said, adding that the state ultimately would not be able to afford the necessary upgrades. “Rhode Island’s computer systems at the (Department of Motor Vehicles) are from back in the ’80s,” he said, noting that “California estimates that it’s going to cost them $75 million to administer” a similar measure.

The potential increased incentive for illegal immigrants to flock to the state constitutes another argument against the bill. “This only encourages more illegal aliens to come,” Gorman said. “And we’re having trouble dealing with the number of illegal aliens we have in the state of Rhode Island right now.”

A clause in the bill requiring two years of paid taxes, together with a forthcoming bill restricting welfare benefits, would negate this concern, Ciccone said. “My bill gives you 60 (welfare) checks, and after that, you’re done.”

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