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House approves immigrant driver's license bill

The "Driver's Licenses for All" bill would enable undocumented immigrants to apply for Minnesota state licenses.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota House Monday night passed the Licenses for All legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for state driver's licenses.

Supporters say Minnesota is home to 80,000 immigrants who either came to this country without permission or overstayed student and tourist visas. They're already driving to jobs, schools and church but live in fear they'll be deported after a routine traffic stop or accident.

"It's a decision for our children, who are children, to not have to live with this mental trauma depending on whether their families are going to be able to take them to an emergency room or safely pick them up from school," Rep. Maria Isa Perez-Vega, the St. Paul Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill, told reporters.

The bill garnered support from statewide business groups, law enforcement, and agribusiness groups. Dairy farms in particular are increasingly reliant on immigrant workers who may not be able to prove their legal residency if arrested.

Backers say the licenses would be the key to getting insurance, housing, and other essentials that require a license. So far 18 other states grant licenses to undocumented residents, something Minnesota did before the year 2003.

"This movement is because women of color in the state of Minnesota have the audacity to reclaim their humanity in the public arena," Emilia Gonzalez Avalos of Unidos Minnesota told reporters.

"This is not just a bill that will support some immigrants. This is common sense policy that is good for every single Minnesotan."

The vote fell along party lines, with all 69 yes votes coming from Democrats and all 60 no votes from Republicans. House Speaker Melissa Hortman appeared earlier in the day with the coalition backing the bill to endorse the effort.

"It will help us grow the state economy, and it's so important to treat immigrant communities with the dignity and respect they deserve."

The House passed a similar bill four years ago, but it couldn't gain traction in the GOP-controlled Senate. Now that Democrats control both chambers supporters have high hopes the bill will become reality. 

Some Republicans expressed support for the general idea of legal driving status for immigrants but would prefer the licenses carry special labels distinguishing them from regular licenses. 

"We have concerns with the ability for people to vote or do same-day registration once they have a photo ID," Rep. Jon Koznick, a Lakeville Republican, explained.

"We have real concerns about that with the integrity of the election process, and the sanctity of the vote."

The Secretary of State's Office checks the voter rolls against the list of non-citizens with driver's licenses to guard against non-citizens voting. Any non-citizen who votes can be charged with a felony and face prison time, deportation and a $100,000 fine. 

Rep. Aisha Gomez, the Minneapolis Democrat who is the lead author of this year's bill, said the GOP's voter fraud worries don't line up with reality. She noted that non-citizens considered legal immigrants can currently get driver's licenses but don't vote.

"A driver's license does not indicate that you’re a citizen of this country in Minnesota. Many, many people who are not citizens in this country and do not have access to voting rights are able to drive legally."

The bill that passed the House in 2019 did call for specially marked licenses. The lead author that year, then-Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, said it was part of an effort to attract Republican support in a divided legislature.

Rep. Hortman said she cried in 2019 when immigrants converged on the capitol to celebrate the House passage of the bill because she knew it would be very difficult to win over Senate Republicans. She predicted it would pass the Senate this time.

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