By Joanne von Alroth
SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (Reuters) - Illinois Republican leaders endorsed a proposal to grant temporary drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants on Tuesday, weeks after Hispanics voted heavily for Democrats in national elections.
If approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Illinois would be the most populous state to offer drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. Washington and New Mexico are the only states that allow illegal immigrants to obtain licenses. In Utah, they can get driving permits.
On January 1, California will allow immigrants with federal work permits to receive licenses.
At a press conference, Illinois state Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno, and House Republican leader Tom Cross endorsed the proposal, saying it would make the state's roads safer for all drivers.
Radogno said Illinois can no longer ignore the presence of illegal immigrants, who are driving without insurance.
"They are here and they are with us, some of them not even of their own volition. But I guess we expect these people to ride their bicycles to work," she said.
Since 2010, a handful of Republican-led states, notably border state Arizona, passed laws cracking down on illegal immigrants. But after the November elections, in which an estimated 66 percent of Hispanics voted for Democratic President Barack Obama, both parties said they wanted to overhaul federal immigration law.
In Washington, Republican senators from Texas and Arizona, last month proposed what they called a compromise plan to offer visas to children brought to the United States by their illegal immigrant parents. The plan by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Jon Kyl is intended as a Republican alternative to the Democrats' "Dream Act," which would grant citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants.
Unlicensed, uninsured drivers are involved in almost 80,000 accidents in Illinois annually, resulting in $660 million in damage, according to the Illinois Highway Safety Coalition. Unlicensed immigrant drivers cost $64 million in damage claims.
The measure would extend to undocumented immigrants Illinois' existing temporary visitor driver's license, used by legal immigrants. The licenses are "visually distinct" from ordinary licenses, with a purple background and the words "not valid for identification" on the front, explained Lawrence Benito, chief executive of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
The Illinois Safer Families Coalition, an organization that opposes giving drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants, ran an ad this week saying Illinois politicians cannot be trusted to administer such a program.
Coalition spokesman Bill Kelly cited Ricardo Guzman, a truck driver who illegally obtained a driver's license in Illinois and was involved in a 1994 crash that killed six people. It was later discovered that Guzman had bribed an Illinois state official to get the driver's license.
"I'm afraid that this bill, this poorly thought-through bill, is going to result in similar tragedies," Kelly said.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the number of Latinos in Illinois was more than 2 million, or nearly 16 percent of the population.
(Writing by Greg McCune and Stacey Joyce)