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Virginia Senate advances bill allowing driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants

CNN logo CNN 2/12/2020 By Kelly Mena, CNN
a small clock tower in front of a house: Virginia State Capitol © Getty Images/Joe Daniel Price Virginia State Capitol

Virginia's Democratic-controlled Senate has passed legislation that would grant temporary driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.

The measure, SB 34, which passed on a near-party-line vote of 22-18, would allow taxpaying Virginians who can prove their identities and that they know how to drive to obtain one-year driver's permits. It's the latest progressive action taken by Democrats, who took over both chambers of Virginia's Legislature last month and have since passed bills ranging from gun restrictions to ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment.

Current Virginia law requires those applying for licenses to provide proof of "legal presence" to show they are authorized to be in the country.

Under the Drivers Privilege Cards program, individuals would have to pass written and road tests and maintain insurance. The bill now heads to the House of Delegates. If signed into law by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who has previously expressed support for such a measure, it would go into effect on January 1, 2021.

The bill's sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Scott Surovell, has worked on passing such a measure since 2016. Following the Senate's vote on Tuesday, he called the legislation a "public safety and quality of life bill."

"Having an ID also makes it more likely that individuals will come forward to assist law enforcement in investigations. Other states who have taken action have seen a decline in collisions and hit and run cases," Surovell said in a statement.

Republicans have opposed the measure. During a House hearing last month on the issue, GOP Del. Terry Austin argued that allowing undocumented immigrants to carry state IDs opens the door to identity fraud, according to The Washington Post.

"This license can be taken as the person is a citizen of the United States," Austin said. "This could misrepresent an individual's identity and compromise the safety in the United States."

However, under the bill, driving privilege cards would not be considered valid identification for federal, voting or public benefit purposes.

If passed, the legislation would make Virginia the 18th state, including DC and Puerto Rico, to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver privilege cards, Surovell's office said.

In recent months, New York and New Jersey have passed or instituted similar laws, a push for expanding rights to undocumented communities that have been a target of the Trump administration's immigration policies.

Immigrant advocacy groups in the state applauded the Virginia Senate's passage of the legislation, including CASA, a pro-immigrant and Latino rights national organization.

"SB34 makes our Commonwealth a more equitable and welcoming place," Luis Aguilar, the Virginia CASA director for Latino and immigrant communities, said in a press release. Aguilar supported the bill and helped move it forward.

An estimated 269,000 undocumented immigrants live in Virginia, according to 2017 data from the Migration Policy Institute.

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