By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Illinois may soon become the most populous U.S. state to grant a form of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, after the nation's growing Hispanic population boosted the power of Democrats in national and state elections on November 6.
A bipartisan group of Illinois politicians announced on Tuesday they would propose such a law when the legislature convenes on November 27.
Washington state and New Mexico are the only states that currently allow illegal immigrants to get licenses. Utah allows driving permits. As the fifth most populous state, Illinois would be the biggest state to adopt such a law.
A California law that allows immigrants with federal work permits to receive driver's licenses will take effect January 1, 2013.
Supporters said the law would be good for public safety, allowing Illinois immigrant motorists to get tested on their driving skills and buy insurance.
"When you have a quarter of a million undocumented drivers on the road, it's definitely a safety concern," said Ron Holmes, spokesman for Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, who is backing the measure along with fellow Democrats Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar, a popular Republican, joined Democrats at a news conference in Chicago Tuesday to support the idea, as did Republican State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. It also has the support of the powerful House Speaker, Chicago Democrat Michael Madigan, giving it a good chance of passage.
The drive to pass the law follows the re-election of Democratic President Barack Obama, Democratic gains in the U.S. Senate and in the Illinois legislature with strong Hispanic support.
Since 2010, a handful of Republican-led states, notably border state Arizona, passed laws cracking down on illegal immigrants. But after this year's election, which saw an estimated 66 percent of Hispanics vote for Obama, Democrats and Republicans have said they want to work on an overhaul of federal immigration law.
Illinois, like California, elected a veto-proof Democratic supermajority in the legislature this month, with Democrats now controlling all branches of government.
Unlicensed, uninsured drivers are involved in almost 80,000 accidents in Illinois each year, resulting in $660 million in damage, according to the Illinois Highway Safety Coalition. Unlicensed immigrant drivers cost $64 million in damage claims alone.
The Safety Coalition said on its website that since New Mexico made the change in 2003, the rate of uninsured motorists fell from 33 percent to under 9 percent.
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, a Republican, has fought to outlaw such licenses since she took office in January 2011. She has argued that the state's law encouraged people to come to New Mexico from other states just to obtain driver's licenses.
Holmes said supporters of the Illinois measure are talking with law enforcement officials to make sure a license for undocumented immigrants would not be used for fraud.
The measure would expand 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.
"This is a practical, commonsense approach," said Benito. He said supporters have been talking with Republicans in the legislature to try to get their support.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the number of Latinos in Illinois was over 2 million, or nearly 16 percent of the population.
Republicans in Illinois who have objected to the proposed law in the past could not be reached for comment.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and Lisa Shumaker)