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Drivers licenses for all – maybe

Not quite drivers licenses, exactly, but close enough.

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A Dallas Democrat has teamed up with two powerful Republicans to craft a compromise version of a bill that would give immigrants here illegally the ability to drive legally in Texas and obtain insurance – but only after they submit to a criminal background check, fingerprinting and prove state residency.

The proposal is being sold by supporters as anything but a tool to expand the rights of people residing in Texas illegally. And they caution that a new form of driving permit will be granted, not an actual driver’s license.

Rather, they are pitching it as a law enforcement measure to fix an unintended consequence of a law passed last session that requires people to prove their citizenship to renew a driver’s license.

That 2011 measure has left immigrants who drove legally in Texas for decades unable to renew their licenses or buy insurance, a problem that has caused major headaches for law enforcement officials across the state.

“It’s good for law enforcement. It’s good for security,” said Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, who authored the measure, House Bill 3206. “We have already gone past the immigration debate, and now we’re into the law enforcement debate.”

Major business groups across the state, including the Texas Association of Business and the Greater Houston Partnership, are backing the bill, as are local law enforcement, including Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

“This bill is a good idea. It would make the streets of Harris County safer for everyone,” Garcia said. “We would learn a lot more than we know now about drivers who are already traveling our roadways every day, but have been unable or afraid to obtain a driver’s permit and insurance. Having more legal, insured drivers helps all drivers.”

This is one of those situations where the right thing to do is simple and obvious and most rational people recognize it as such, but the politics of it are dicey because the opposition is so fierce. HB3206 has every single one of Rep. Alonzo’s Democratic colleagues as coauthors, and it passed out of the State Affairs committee on an 8-1 vote last week, so it does have some bipartisan appeal; Sen. Tommy Williams and Rep. Byron Cook, the Chair of State Affairs, are the Republicans noted in the story as Alonzo’s allies. It’s starting to get late in the session, though, so if it doesn’t have enough support soon it’s likely to become a casualty of the calendar.

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