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A bill that passed the Illinois Legislature Tuesday allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, opening up a new driving population to the state’s insurers that will be able to offer coverage to hundreds of thousands of motorists.

SB 957 passed by a 65-46 vote, the culmination of support from a wide spectrum of law enforcement, health care and insurance entities throughout the state that makes it certain Gov. Pat Quinn will sign off on the bill, according to Ron Holmes, a spokesman for Sen. John Cullerton, one of the bill’s main sponsors and president of the state Senate.

“This bill acknowledges a simple reality: there are 250,000 undocumented drivers who are on our roads already,” Holmes said in an interview with Online Auto Insurance News. “This will make sure they’re properly tested on the rules of the road and are properly insured as they drive.”

Full approval of the bill would make Illinois the fourth state in the U.S. authorizing undocumented immigrants for legalized driving in some capacity, and the first state to do so since 2003, according to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

New Mexico and Washington have laws granting undocumented immigrants the right to get driver’s licenses, while Utah allows driving permits.

Temporary Licensing Includes Insurance Requirements

The legislation allows undocumented immigrant motorists to obtain a renewable three-year Temporary Visitor Driver’s License (TVDL), granting them typical driving privileges but also making them subject to roadway laws including the requirement that a motorist has insurance.

Proposed in February 2011, SB 957 spent a bulk of its time in the state Senate as lawmakers added amendments, one of which included invalidation of a TVDL if the driver cannot provide proof of coverage during a traffic stop.

That amendment was finalized more than a year later in December 2012, when senators finally pushed the bill out of their chamber with a 41-14 vote.

The Illinois Highway Safety Coalition (IHSC), a group organizing support for the legislation, said that drivers with TVDLs have strong reason to obtain coverage because, without it, a traffic stop could mean citations for both driving without insurance and a license. That TVDL motorist would also be subject to the typical procedures for other drivers, with his or her license reissued only upon getting proper coverage.

Supporters Say Bill Will Incentivize Insurance for Motorists

For undocumented immigrants who drive, obtaining the proper insurance to be on the road had “no point” before SB 957 because the few insurers selling policies to those motorists “generally will not pay out any claims on these policies,” according to the IHSC.

“For such motorists there is no point to buying insurance,” the group said in a statement explaining the legislation. “Enabling undocumented immigrant motorists to get licensed would allow them to get paid for claims on the policies they would pay for—and thus take away a major disincentive from getting insurance.”

The bill, which would require driving courses for TVDL recipients, will also cut into the $660 million in damage claims that the IHSC says is caused by undocumented immigrant motorists every year.

Hit-and-run incidents make up many of those claims, according to Holmes.

“This legislation will help stop hit-and-runs,” he said. “When you have undocumented drivers who are fleeing the scene because they don’t have the license to drive, that’s a major problem.”

In Utah, where undocumented immigrants are allowed to get driving privilege (DP) cards, a 2008 audit showed about 75 percent of them had obtained insurance.

Outreach will be crucial in implementing the law to its full potential, according to Elianne Gonzalez, the Insurance Information Institute’s Hispanic press officer.

The typical questions that most consumers have about insurance will likely be similar to those from undocumented immigrants seeking coverage, but the latter driving population faces cultural and language barriers, according to Gonzalez.

“Sometimes they’re not aware that there are additional portions of a policy so they’ll ask, ‘How come I’m not paid my claim for a stolen car?’” said Gonzalez, who said she has counseled such drivers about insurance topics. “Having only the required minimum insurance doesn’t protect the driver totally. Even people who have lived here for a long time don’t know that, but it pops up a lot in the Hispanic community because they tend to not ask many questions.”

Gonzalez said that undocumented drivers need to pose those questions at the time of purchasing insurance and “not when something bad happens.”

“Education is key,” she said in an interview with OAIN. “It’s something that needs to go hand in hand with this law. It will teach those drivers about how to behave during an accident and what their obligations are. It will also help them know what minimum insurance requirements are and also what kind of insurance they should get for their needs.”

Bill’s Backers Include Insurers, High-Profile Names

Trade groups representing auto insurers in Illinois were “stakeholders in the course of crafting the legislation,” Holmes said. The IHSC named major groups in the state like the Illinois Insurance Association and Independent Insurance Agents of Illinois as supporters.

The bill can also count some big names among its backers that include Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who said it would help him make the city “the most immigrant-friendly city in the country.”

Emmanuel voiced his support at a November 2012 event alongside Cullerton and Gov. Quinn, the latter of whom also lent his backing to the legislation at that event.

“Making sure all motorists, regardless of their background, are licensed and insured will drive economic growth and ease the financial burden on all Illinois motorists,” said Quinn.

Opponents Fear Abuse, Cite Examples in Other States

The legislation’s opponents say that mass issuing of new licenses is prone to illegitimate uses as other states fight abuse following similar licensing efforts.

In New Mexico, which passed its licensing legislation in 2003, Gov. Susana Martinez has waged a yearslong public battle over the state’s program that grants driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

State law enforcement uncovered “licensing rings” that sought out-of-state customers and lured them into buying driver’s licenses in New Mexico, including Chinese nationals who “peddled” licenses to more than 60 undocumented immigrants in 2011.

Such incidents, according to Martinez, showed that such legislation had made driver’s licenses in the state “not secure.”

“There is a real and legitimate concern, given the interest that is coming from out of state and the numerous license rings that have recently been uncovered, that New Mexico driver’s licenses are going to people who do not remain or even intend to remain residents of our state,” she said in a 2011 statement as she directed the state officials to begin verifying thousands of random samples of foreign nationals who had obtained licenses.

The IHSC directly addressed the issue during its effort to pass SB 957, saying that the TVDLs issued in Illinois would not be “regular licenses” like those issued in New Mexico.

Other provisions built into SB 957 would fight abuse, according to the IHSC, including requirements that TVDL recipients prove they lived in Illinois at least a year and provide some sort of government-issued document like a valid passport.

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