By Joanne von Alroth
SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (Reuters) - Illinois took a major step on Tuesday toward granting drivers licenses to illegal immigrants, which would make it the most populous U.S. state to allow undocumented migrants to legally drive.
The Democratic-controlled state Senate voted 41-14 to approve licenses for illegal immigrants to raucous cheers from the legislative gallery.
If approved by the House, also with a majority of Democrats, and signed into law by Democratic Governor Pat Quinn, Illinois would join only two other states, Washington and New Mexico, in granting such drivers licenses. Utah allows driving permits.
On January 1, California will allow immigrants with federal work permits to receive licenses.
Illinois Republican leaders joined in support of the proposal on Tuesday after Republicans took a drubbing at the polls in November, when an estimated 66 percent of Hispanics voted for Democratic President Barack Obama.
At a press conference, Illinois state Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno, and House Republican leader Tom Cross said Illinois could no longer ignore the presence of illegal immigrants, who are driving without licenses and 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," Radogno said.
Some Republicans in Congress also have begun to soften their opposition to immigration reform.
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 without corruption.
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. Lawmakers estimated about 250,000 illegal immigrants live in Illinois.
(Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Stacey Joyce and Leslie Gevirtz)