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Strong support can’t save bill to get undocumented immigrants Idaho driving privileges

A driver waits to turn onto Highway 95 where the four-lane freeway ends, just south of the Kootenai-Bonner county line on April 17, 2017. A bill that would have granted driving privileges to all Idahoans, regardless of legal status, died in committee Thursday at the Legislature.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Nicole Foy Idaho Statesman

Despite widespread support from several agriculture industry leaders, immigrant advocacy groups and the Roman Catholic diocese, a bill that would have granted driving privileges to all Idahoans, regardless of legal status, died in committee Thursday at the Legislature.

Most of those who signed up to testify during the bill’s hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee were in favor of the proposed legislation, and many were unable to speak after time ran out.

Two American Falls students – Fernando Montelongo and Ariana Hernandez – kicked off testimony. They helped bill sponsor Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, collect stories from undocumented immigrants in Eastern Idaho. Overwhelmingly, they said, people they interviewed wanted to do whatever was necessary to receive legal driving privileges so they could help their children and lessen fears of being separated from family.

“The driving authorization card would bring so much hope in the community, and across the state,” Montelongo said. “This will allow those who come here for life-changing opportunities to travel safely to and from their job and personal leisure.”

Under SB 1132, people using the driver’s authorization card would have paid an annual fee but not be required to have the extensive documentation needed to get a regular driver’s license – Star Card or otherwise. Cardholders would have to provide proof of Idaho residency, such as a power bill, and an identifying birth certificate.

Supporters of the bill included the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, PODER of Idaho, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise, Simplot, Associated General Contractors, the Boise Metro Chamber, Food Producers of Idaho and other leaders across industries. They pitched the measure as a local solution to a national problem that Congress has failed to solve for decades.

Idaho’s agricultural industry relies on the roughly 40% of its workforce that is undocumented – jobs that Idaho Dairymen’s Association CEO Rick Naerebout said employers struggled to fill even with high unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic.

The District of Columbia and 17 states, including Washington, Utah and Nevada, allow unauthorized residents to have driving privileges. A report from Idaho’s bipartisan Office of Performance Evaluation (OPE) on the impact of similar legislation in the state suggested that it could improve road safety by decreasing serious accidents, hit-and-run accidents and the number of uninsured drivers on the road.

Republican lawmakers on the committee seemed to agree to a point, and said they were “moved” by the emotional testimony of many community members who shared their experiences of fearing for family members who – despite contributing to Idaho’s economy and otherwise living as law-abiding citizens – face significant barriers without a driver’s license.

Still, members voted to hold the bill in committee instead of sending it to the Senate floor, effectively killing it this legislative session.

“My heartfelt thoughts go out to those who do so much for us, and are so unappreciated for what they do,” said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston. “Everyone in this committee benefits from the work our Hispanic citizens do.”

Several Idaho law enforcement members testified in opposition to the bill, including those speaking on behalf of the Idaho Sheriffs Association and the Idaho Chiefs of Police Association, which ultimately swayed the Republican members who hold a majority on the committee. Many said county sheriffs would have a “moral dilemma” issuing legal documents to people who had violated federal immigration law.

“The concern for me personally is that I’ve got someone standing at my office that is actively violating federal law,” said Clearwater County Sheriff Chris Goetz. “To just pretend like that isn’t a problem … that’s my primary concern with that.”

However, because the driver’s authorization card would be open to anyone who didn’t want to sign up for the Star Card or the Idaho driver’s license, it wouldn’t necessarily identify a cardholder as an undocumented immigrant. Other officers who testified before Goetz noted that local law enforcement officials are not supposed to enforce federal immigration law.

Some committee members, including Lodge and Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Winder (R-Boise), suggested an interim committee to work with stakeholder groups and educate the public more.

Estefanía Mondragon, the executive director of PODER of Idaho, said its Manejando Sin Miedo (Driving Without Fear) campaign and petition would continue despite the setback, and PODER is hopeful that an interim committee will be formed. Ruby Mendez-Mota from the ACLU of Idaho, who worked on a 2015 push for similar legislation, said she was encouraged by the wide support from several Idaho industries this time, despite the “disappointing” result.

“You’ve heard today that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be here,” Guthrie told the committee before the vote. “Let’s talk for a minute about reality. They are here. They were here before this bill was an idea on a napkin. And they’ll be here tomorrow, regardless of whether this bill advances or not.”