RI lawmakers to vote on driving permits for unauthorized immigrants

·4 min read
Supporters at a State House rally last June endorse driver's permits for undocumented immigrants.

Rhode Island lawmakers are on the verge of allowing people in the country illegally to obtain a permit to drive an automobile, ending a two-decade debate over one of the state's hot-button cultural issues.

The House Judiciary Committee Tuesday voted 9-2 to create "driver privilege permits," which would be available to residents who do not have a social security number and cannot prove legal immigration status.

Burrillville Republican David Place and North Providence Democrat Arthur Corvese voted against the bill.

More: RI could be closer than ever to issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants

The Judiciary Committee endorsement sets the bill up for a vote by the full House on Wednesday. The Senate has passed a similar version of the legislation.

What are the limitations of the driver privilege permit?

If approved, the permits could not be used to vote, register to vote, get on an airplane or get inside a federal building. The permits would cost recipients $50 and last for two years.

To get a permit, residents have to have filed a Rhode Island tax return or be a dependant of someone who filed a tax return.

They would also have to provide two documents proving that they live in the state.

"We are ecstatic. The time has come for this to finally make it through and become law," said Hector Perez-Aponte of the Immigrant Coalition of Rhode Island. "We have a lot of uninsured and unlicensed drivers out there. With more folks with privilege cards, we are looking at making the road safer for all."

Legislation to allow unauthorized immigrants to get driver's licenses or create a separate class of driving permits for the undocumented has been introduced in the General Assembly since at least 2003.

Former Gov. Gina Raimondo campaigned on support for providing immigrant licenses, but after entering office declined to try to provide them without General Assembly approval.

And for years former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello did not bring the legislation for a vote, a fact he highlighted on the campaign trail in his conservative Cranston district.

Last year after Mattiello lost his reelection bid, the Senate passed a driving permit bill, but the Division of Motor Vehicles balked at having to administer the permits without any extra funding and the House didn't bring the bill for a vote.

The budget passed by the House last week does not include any additional money for the DMV, but Gov. Dan McKee earlier this year wrote in support of driving permits.

In testimony to lawmakers, McKee noted that allowing more people to drive legally would increase the number of people who purchase auto insurance, potentially lowering premiums for all drivers.

"Rhode Island also ranks 7th in the nation for the cost of car insurance, averaging $300 more than the average annual insurance cost nationwide," McKee wrote. "The more drivers we can license, the safer our roads and the lower our insurance premiums will be."

The driving permit bill was a priority of the Legislative Black and Latino Caucus and Caucus chairwoman Rep. Karen Alzate, D-Pawtucket, who was the lead House sponsor. Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, sponsored the Senate version.

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said in an email that the bill has "adequate checks and balances" and noted it is similar to legislation passed by Connecticut several years ago and Massachusetts earlier this year. (The legislature there overrode Gov. Charlie Baker's veto.)

In written House testimony, a group of Rhode Island College social workers who support the bill said it could help "30,000 undocumented people in Rhode Island."

Resident Isabely Garcia wrote to the House Judiciary Committee in Spanish that she had come to Rhode Island from the Dominican Republic and a driving permit would help her and her son.

On the other side of the issue, Terry Gorman president of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, wrote that the permits are "nothing more than an ENHANCEMENT to our governor's open INVITATION" for people to enter the country illegally.

DMV spokesman Paul Grimaldi said the driving permits for immigrants who can't prove their immigration status will be the same as driver's licenses issued to anyone who chooses not to get a federally REAL ID-compliant license.

"When an undocumented person applies at a DMV office the questions for Automatic Voter Registration will not open in our system so they won’t be able register to vote through the DMV," Grimaldi wrote.


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This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI close to allowing driver's permits people in the country illegally