Open thread: Should the Illinois legislature grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants?


Photo of Wacker Drive traffic in Chicago by John Iwanski. 

The Illinois legislature is expected to consider a bill to allow people here illegally to obtain a driver’s license after going through the same procedures as people who are currently allowed to obtain a driver’s license (exams and fees, etc.). The bill is still being drafted.

This is an “open thread”, designed to spark a discussion. I’ve attempted to present all the latest news and facts on this issue, but I’ve not found any opposing viewpoints except for a debate in Michigan (see Further reading at the end). 

On Friday, November 16, the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board called for legislation to be passed, citing these benefits:

  • To get the licenses, illegal immigrants would have to pass the same vision, written and road tests as someone getting a regular license. If that leads to more driving training, it could make the roads safer.
  • Police officers making a stop would know who is driving the car. With the threat of deportation lessened, illegal immigrants would have less of a motivation to leave the scene of an accident.
  • Families would be less likely to see a family member deported after a routine traffic stop.
  • Health care providers would have an easier time identifying patients. If an illegal alien with contagious spinal meningitis goes into a coma, for example, it’s difficult to identify the patient’s contacts, who need to be treated. A visitor’s license would make that possible because it would contain personal data.
  • Backers of the measure say New Mexico experienced a huge drop in the number of uninsured drivers after licenses were made available in 2003. That doesn’t square, however, with numbers from the Insurance Research Council, which lists New Mexico as the state with the second-highest number of uninsured drivers. But if granting visitor’s licenses persuades even some illegal immigrants to get insurance, that could lower rates for all of us and benefit accident victims.

I hadn’t heard of this or previous attempts to make it possible for illegal immigrants to receive a driver’s license until the newspaper’s editorial, although a similar law was attempted five years ago. Illinois would be the third state in the country, after New Mexico and Washington. Utah also issues licenses but places a mark on them, denoting their “non-compliance”.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel supports the change. The mayor was quoted in the Washington Times, saying,

“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.”

As do 28 Chicago aldermen. Fran Spielman reports in the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday, November 15:

In the nine years since the law was passed, the rate of uninsured motorists in New Mexico plunged—from 33 percent to less than nine percent, the aldermen said. New Mexico has also seen a 24 percent drop in drunk driving accidents and a 25 percent reduction in traffic fatalities, the aldermen said.

“It’ll make our streets and our highways safer,” said Ald. Joe Moore (49th), whose ward includes a virtual United Nations full of immigrants.

Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran also supports the measure. The Lake County News-Sun editorial board wrote on Monday, November 19:

The Libertyville Republican rightly argues licensing undocumented drivers will make roads safer, allow for more efficient policing, improve the economy and best of all, save lives. Having illegals obtain driver’s licenses means they have to be tested on paper and on the road, and then must have insurance.

In Lake County, 470 (28 percent) of all motorists booked at the Lake County Jail for traffic offenses the past year were undocumented immigrants, according to the Highway Safety Coalition, which is behind the call for issuing licenses to the undocumented.

Curran was quoted earlier, in the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday, November 9, mentioning that illegal immigrants without a driver’s license must be detained and go through the court system.

[He noted] most of the individuals involved would be eager to get a license if only there was a procedure allowing them to do so.

“They would love to not violate the law, but they need to feed their families, and they have to get to work,” Curran said.

On top of that, allowing these drivers to be licensed would result in more people on the road who have been tested, Curran said, and once they have a license, more could obtain auto insurance

Should the legislature allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses? What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing this?

It seems easy to drive without a valid license, which people do regardless of their immigration status. It’s not possible, however, to know how many people are driving without a valid driver’s license – except by stopping everyone driving and checking for it.

The American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety analyzed data in the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) to come up with the following statistics (for crashes nationwide in 2001-2005). View the report.

An average of 8,030 drivers were involved in fatal crashes and were definitely or possibly driving with an invalid license or no license. Of this group,

  • 29.6% were driving with no known license
  • 43.6% were driving with a suspended or revoked license
  • 7.6% were driving cancelled, expired, or otherwise invalid license
  • Remaining 18.9% had an undetermined license status

This group of 8,030 drivers composed 13.7% of all drivers involved in fatal crashes, but were involved in 20.5% of all deaths occurring in motor vehicle crashes! The report also noted the following, which shows how easy it is to drive without a valid license (again, data is nationwide):

Nearly 7,000 drivers involved in fatal crashes every year (11.9 percent of all drivers involved in fatal crashes) have had their license suspended or revoked at least once in the preceding three years, including over 1,700 who have had their licenses suspended or revoked three or more times.

Another key finding? People driving with a known license status (which doesn’t actually mean a valid license) were less likely to flee a crash.


A Metra train passes on a viaduct over Kennedy Expressway traffic. 


The Sun-Times’s editorial from Friday, November 16, doesn’t provide anymore insight as to any existing research or rationale for why and how these benefits would be realized. For instance, I’d like to know the rate of deportation after making traffic stops.

Several of the Chicagoan deaths we’ve tracked in the Fatality Tracker are by the control of an unlicensed driver (immigration status unknown). If this legislation passes, the punishment for driving without a license should increase to ensure that those who are here illegally are especially motivated to obtain legal driving privileges.

I ask supporters of this measure make a push for mobility education, too, that would increase the quality and breadth of education that drivers must receive before obtaining a license. If you’re going to open a can of worms, might as well throw a gem in there.

I wonder what the extent of driving without a license is in areas with good or great transit mobility and accessibility (like New York City and Los Angeles) versus those without (like many suburban and rural areas). If an alternative mode isn’t there to take you to work, one would do what they need to do to get there.

Further reading

31 thoughts on “Open thread: Should the Illinois legislature grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants?”

  1. People are here and they drive. I do not understand why anyone would not support testing them, and legally allowing them to buy insurance. This is not an immigration issue. This is a road safety issue. Law enforcement and other first responders, including hospital associations support this. A little sanity please. As a bicyclist, I don’t care if I am sharing the road with someone who is here legally or illegally. I care if they know the rules, can see, have insurance and are willing to stop if they (god forbid) hit me. When we ignore the day-to-day practicalities because of unrelated political ideologies we are setting ourselves up for trouble.

    1. “I do not understand why anyone would not support testing them, and legally allowing them to buy insurance. This is not an immigration issue. ”

      It absolutely is an immigration issue. And it’s infuriating that instead of spending resources on deporting these people, Illinois is now considering spending resources on catering to them. And do you honestly think people who have so little regard for our immigration laws are interested in the opportunity to BUY insurance?

      1. Spending resources? What resources? If the drivers license fee doesnt cover the cost to issue the license, then thats a whole other issue.

        And you do realize that illegal immigrants pay the same atxes every one else does, right?

        And people who have so little regard for the laws? Uh huh. So if johnny was brought over when he was 2, grew up his entire life pledging allegiance and so forth, and only learns hes illegal when he turns 16, wants a license, and his parents tell him it cant happen….has he no regard for the law? Im pretty damn sure he wants to drive legally.

  2. Yes! Safe operation of your vehicle is a public safety and health issue that is blind to your immigration status. Using road safety as a proxy for immigration enforcement ends up making roads less safe for everybody and does nothing to address the status of undocumented residents.

  3. New Mexico will stop issuing licenses to illegals because the TSA said they wouldn’t accept New Mexico licenses as ID if they didn’t. Illinois would face the same problem and won’t do this as a result. This is just shameless enthnic identity politics. Not a serious or legitmate political suggestion.

        1. I already know about the REAL ID act. I want to know about how the TSA supposedly advised the State of New Mexico about how it wouldn’t accept NM driver’s licenses in the future.

        2. Id like to see a real source (ie, not some random blog…no offense to this website) on this matter. It doesnt pass the smell test because you dont need to be a citizen to fly domestically.

  4. Why should Illegal Immigrants (notice the term Illegal) get the same rights and privileges that actual U.S. Citizens get? Did it suddenly become O.K. to be in this nation illegally? Have we just completely abandoned the concept of *Legal* Immigration?
    This is pandering to the Hispanic voting bloc (and let’s be realistic, the majority of illegal immigrants are Hispanic) so that The Most Honorable Party of Democracy can score more votes on election days.

    1. What does citizenship have to do with driving? Do you want to ban residents from driving? How about tourists?

      And some great logic there at the end. Giving illegals license = votes for democrats? Um, you do realize that since theyre not citizens, they can’t vote right..? Quite the payoff the dems are getting on that one!

  5. No, on the simple basis that it takes a lot of time to get a drivers license, and it also takes a lot of time to get a visa and work permit too. I know the process is difficult because I used to work with people who came to the US and had to get visas. If someone is going to go through the process of getting a drivers license they could also do the same process to get a visa. Am I missing something here?

    1. Possibly. Visas aren’t available for everyone who applies for one. And they aren’t available for people who’ve already moved here illegally. They, and citizenship, take years to obtain (the length of time depends on your country of origin, and countless other regulations).

      A driver’s license takes a few days to obtain. If you are over 18, formal driver education is not required. Show up at the Illinois Secretary of State’s driver services facility, take a written, visual, and road test, pay a small fee and the license is yours.

      1. That’s right – I forgot that you don’t have to go to a driving school after 18.
        I don’t like the general idea of marking these licenses as “noncompliant” but I also don’t like the idea of giving out a government-issues ID to someone who isn’t in the country with the proper paperwork, mainly because a drivers license is considered a valid form of ID and not just a drivers license (they’re separate things in many other places). I would not expect to live in another country without the authorization to do so and still get the privilege (not right) to obtain a license to drive.

        1. I think the purpose of marking them as “non compliant” is so that they are driver’s licenses only (and allow the driver to obtain insurance) and could not function as government-issued IDs for the reasons we currently use government-issued IDs.

    2. Someone who was brought in as a child, can NEVER get a visa. Meaning when they learn theyre illegal because they cant get a license (after thinking their entire life theyre american) what do you want them to do?

  6. Yes, I believe Illinois should allow this. Everyone benefits when undocumented immigrants receive the same education and tests before driving, and when they can be identified in the event of an emergency. Licenses also serve as a photo ID that can be used at other times, as proof of age for example, or to obtain a library card or pick up a package. I doubt anyone has self-deported because they couldn’t obtain a drivers’ license, so I don’t see this as making a significant difference in the number of undocumented people who come here. But even if it did, I still think it’s the right thing to do.

      1. The Illinois written test is definitely easy. When I took the test, it was multiple choice and the wrong answers were like “close your eyes and hit the gas.” However, I failed the written test in another state the first time I took it (when I was 15) and I just barely passed my driving test even though I practiced a lot. I think having these tests is better than nothing and forces people to educate themselves to some degree. Especially if you came to the U.S. as an adult, or if you didn’t grow up with a driver, you might not know basic laws that we all take for granted.

        1. There must be some benefit, but I don’t think it’s as hard as it should be. I took it the first time when I was 16 and found it too easy – and way too circumstantial. My test was the day after a heavy snow (in Wisconsin) and the driving conditions were inherently slow. We have distinct weather conditions here and you should have to be tested in all of them. In general I think the test for a drivers license, a huge responsibility, should be a lot harder to pass.

    1. As I mentioned elsewhere in this thread, people 18 and older don’t have to *get* driver’s education to obtain a license. You only have to pass written, visual, and driving exams. Everyone who obtains a driver’s license in Illinois didn’t receive the same education.

      1. This is what I meant – although I wasn’t clear about it. Studying for the written and driving exams will at least expose them to the laws. It’s better than nothing.

  7. Mr. Vance:

    Because you do not need insurance to apply for and receive a
    license, how exactly would granting a license to illegal aliens ensure that
    they would buy costly (high flight risk) insurance?

    1. I don’t know if this program would ensure that.

      This is a pre-existing issue, though. Insurance is for cars + drivers and you don’t need to own a car to be able to have a driver’s license.

  8. I’d like to know if the new law will increase the enforcement or penalties against driving without a license. I’d be all for that.

  9. i am all for giving licences to illegal immgrants , as long as the license has that term wrtten on it and they are required to admit they here illegally when they apply

  10. The illegal immigrants are going to be driving anyway, so why not make them take a traffic safety class and allow them to obtain a drivers license? The US government should be making it easier to get a work visa anyway.

  11. Absolutely. A drivers license indicates the state has rendered the holder fit to drive. Has nothing to do with citizenship, residency, etc etc.

    And yes, under the current system, an illegal alien has all the incentive to flee after a collision. Thats a terrible incentive to have in our system.

    Stay, do the right thing, get a ticket….and deported?
    Or flee and have a minimal chance of being caught?

    No brainer.

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