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Our View: Undocumented drivers

Updated: January 19, 2013 2:08AM

We have to admit we were on the fence when it came to the push by immigrant rights groups and others seeking legislation to allow illegal immigrants to get temporary visitors’ driver’s licenses in Illinois. That is until Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran came out in support of the idea the other day.

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.

Right now, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants are driving on Illinois roads. Because they are undocumented, they can’t get driver’s licenses, and they can’t get insurance.

It may feel counterintuitive to create special recognition for drivers who, from a legal standpoint, aren’t supposed to be here anyway, which is why we were on fence. But the reality is, they are here. A system that recognizes that fact makes more sense than one that ignores it.

Temporary visitor driver’s licenses already are available for foreign students, spouses and children of temporary workers, long-term workers and others who are here legally but don’t have the Social Security numbers needed to obtain a regular driver’s license. The IDs are similar to regular driver’s licenses, but have purple backgrounds instead of red.

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.

The final legislation should include provisions that ensure that anyone applying for visitor’s license really lives in Illinois.

North Carolina shut down a similar program after too many out-of-state immigrants got licensed.

If unexpected problems crop up, the program can be tweaked.

But for Illinois, this is the right road to travel.

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