Texas lawmaker proposes driving permits for illegal immigrants

Posted: January 2, 2015 - 8:43pm

Day laborers wait for work in San Antonio. A Texas lawmaker has proposed legislation that would grant driving permit privileges for undocumented immigrants.


SAN ANTONIO — Every day, Rolando Guerra, Juan Hernandez and Elmer Guevara stand in a large but usually empty parking lot, hoping to find work.

Like dozens of day laborers in San Antonio and other Texas cities, Guerra and Hernandez are illegal immigrants from Mexico.

“I come here every day because this is the only place where I can find work,” Hernandez, 49, said while keeping an eye on motorists — particularly those driving large pickups — who slow down and look like potential employers.

“I wish I could drive so that I could find me a steady job and get a paycheck, and maybe even some benefits,” the native of the southeastern Mexican state of Tabasco said in Spanish.

“But I can’t because I don’t have a driver’s license,” he said.

“The few times I drive (a 1992 Chevrolet pickup) is when I need to go to the supermarket, or somewhere not far from my neighborhood.

“I am afraid that if a policeman stops me he will arrest me and take my truck away for driving without a license and insurance.”

Guerra, 41, and Guevara, 30, said they are in the same boat, but don’t own a vehicle because they see no point in owning one when they can’t get a driver’s license.

However, under a bill state Rep. Roberto Alonzo field recently, the state would authorize the likes of Guerra, Hernandez and Guevara to drive and buy auto insurance, something several other states and the District of Columbia already do. On Thursday, California joined the list of states authorizing immigrants to obtain licenses.

Under Alonzo’s House Bill 68, the state would issue driving permits — not driver’s licenses — to undocumented immigrants who can prove they have lived in Texas for at least a year and have no criminal record.

Hernandez, Guerra and Guevara, who said they have lived in the United States for 18, 14 and two years, respectively, said they have no criminal record.

Alonzo, who has filed similar proposals since the 2003 session and came close to passing one in last year’s session thanks to the strong backing of influential business groups, said he is cautiously optimistic that his bill will finally pass.

“I am always optimistic that reasonable minds can come together,” the Dallas Democrat said in a recent interview.

Alonzo rejects a common argument that his bill would reward people who broke the law when they came to the United States illegally.

“This is not a reward,” he said. “It is about being smart.”

If the state issues driving permits to undocumented immigrants, those who qualify would demonstrate they know how to drive, know the traffic laws and would get insurance, Alonzo said.

“That’s being smart,” he said.

In addition, the state would know who the unauthorized immigrants are and where they live, which in turn would make the state and the nation safer.

However, Republican Reps. John Frullo of Lubbock and John Smithee of Amarillo, who opposed last year’s bill, reject such arguments.

“I know there are a lot of people that would like to do it, but I don’t see how you get the votes to do it,” said Smithee, in reference to the 84th Texas Legislature, which is expected to be the most conservative in decades, mainly because Republicans will almost have a super majority in both houses.

“Why would you want to provide more incentives for people to come here illegally?” Smithee asked. “I can’t imagine any other country or any other political state in the world where they would say, ‘You come here illegally, but we are going to give you a driver’s license.’”

Frullo agrees.

“When people are here illegally, we can’t give them a driver’s license,” he said.

As members of the House State Affairs Committee, Smithee and Frullo are familiar with the pros and cons of the proposed legislation because the 13-member panel screened last year’s bill.

Another major obstacle HB 68 and similar proposals would face is Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick, the soon-to-be presiding officer of the Texas Senate.

During his eight years as a state senator, Patrick, R-Houston, talked tough on illegal immigration.

In addition, while campaigning for lieutenant governor — first in the hard-fought Republican primary when he faced incumbent David Dewhurst and two former state senators, and then against colleague Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, his Democratic opponent in the general election — Patrick made illegal immigration his main issue.

Seven promises still posted on his campaign’s website include repealing a 2001 law that allows undocumented college students — who came here as children and have not legalized their status — to qualify for in-state college tuition.

But even if HB 68 was to pass in the Republican-dominated Legislature, soon-to-be Gov. Greg Abbott would be expected to veto it.

Abbott hinted at this in the Sept. 30 debate with state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, his Democratic opponent.

“We’ve seen problems with laws like that being challenged, if you would, by the federal Real ID Act,” Abbott said.

“I think that before we go down the pathway of trying to create these differentiated types of driver’s licenses, we need to make sure that we are complying with federal law and not providing licenses that others could use for inappropriate purposes.”

Though Alonzo is cautiously optimistic his bill will finally pass, despite Patrick’s opposition and Abbott’s possible veto, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, who filed the Senate’s companion bill, characterized the effort to pass the proposed legislation as “an uphill battle.”

Nonetheless, Hinojosa, D-McAllen, intends to make a strong push for Senate Bill 132, which he authored with fellow Democrats Sylvia Garcia of Houston and Jose Rodriguez of El Paso.

“In my opinion, providing driving permits — not driver’s licenses — to undocumented immigrants would be good policy for the simple reason that we can identify who they are, where they live and make the driving public safer because they would take driving lessons and purchase insurance,” Hinojosa said.

“It would help lower the premiums for those of us who are legal residents and citizens and have to purchase auto insurance,” Hinojosa stressed. “It would also make us safer on the streets because they have driver’s licenses and passed an exam showing they can drive.”

Enrique Rangel can be reached at 210-481-3082 or enrique.rangel@morris.com.