Fourteen years ago, Yolanda Bernal went to a doctor with her two children, who were toddlers at the time. After the appointment, Bernal waited for hours for her children’s father to pick them up in Caldwell. He never came.
The father, who was undocumented, had been pulled over for an illegal left turn, his wife said, and was charged with driving without privileges. He was taken into custody and later deported, separating him from his family “forever,” Bernal said.
Now, a new Senate bill would allow undocumented immigrants restricted driver’s licenses and vehicle insurance, helping them avoid criminal charges for what immigrant rights advocates say is a necessity in Idaho.
A crowded committee room at the Idaho Capitol erupted in applause Tuesday afternoon, as a legislative committee approved sending the bill to the full Senate floor for a vote.
Immigrant advocates and agricultural business owners have worked on legislation to give undocumented immigrants driving privileges for nearly 20 years, said Estefanía Mondragon, executive director of Poder of Idaho, an immigrant rights advocacy group. This is the furthest the bill has ever come, she said.
Business leaders support bill
Dozens of people testified during the bill hearing, most of them in favor. The Idaho Dairymen’s Association, the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation and the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry told lawmakers they support the bill.
“This bill provides revenue positive for the state of Idaho,” said Rick Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association. “It would reduce the number of uninsured drivers on Idaho roads, it would reduce auto accidents both in numbers and severity. All those stats come from the Office of Performance Evaluation’s review of this issue in the other states that have passed similar legislation.”
Farmers and their families testified about relying on undocumented farmworkers, who make up nearly half of the workers in the U.S. agricultural industry, when they are not allowed to obtain driver’s licenses or insurance.
Undocumented workers need to drive to work, drive their children to school and other errands, advocates said during the hearing. They are already driving without licenses, so the bill would make the roads safer for all drivers, supporters said.
But the Idaho Sheriff’s Association remained opposed to the bill.
Jeff Lavey, executive director of the association, said the bill would complicate law enforcement officers’ ability to enforce immigration laws and comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection. Sen. Jim Guthrie, R- McCammon, who sponsored the bill, later said it would not change agencies’ ability to enforce federal immigration laws.
Senators believe bill ‘needs a bigger audience’
Nineteen states have laws in place that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, including Nevada, Utah, Oregon and Washington.
Idaho’s bill would create a new driver’s license that could be used to drive but not to vote, obtain a gun license, or travel on an airplane. The licensees would first be required to attend an appointment in person to present a valid ID, such as a birth certificate, passport or consular document. They would then need to pass the written and driving tests that all U.S. residents must pass to obtain a license.
The committee voted 5-4 to send the bill to the Senate with no recommendation. Republican Sens. Lori Den Hartog, Chuck Winder, and Doug Okuniewicz joined Democratic Sens. Ali Rabe and Rick Just to move the bill to the Senate floor.
“We don’t normally send out something without recommendations,” said Den Hartog, who made the motion. “I think we might need the wisdom of the whole body as we debate and deliberate this. My motion is not indicative of future support on the floor, but the opportunity to use the wisdom of the full body.”
In a news conference after the hearing, Guthrie thanked the committee members for their decision.
“While it went from the committee without recommendation, I think they felt like this issue is important enough that it deserves a bigger audience in the decision-making process,” Guthrie said.
Even without a recommendation, Mondragon and supporters considered the bill’s progress a win.
“For Latinos, issues that we hold dear are rarely brought up in spaces like this,” Mondragon told the Idaho Statesman after the hearing. “What happened today shows that this issue turns out our people. This is an opportunity for the Senate and the House to show they are in support of the Latino community.”