Driver's licenses for all bill passes Minnesota Senate

The Minnesota Senate has approved the "driver's licenses for all" bill, the culmination of a long-running campaign to give tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants the right to drive legally in Minnesota.

The bill, dubbed "driver's licenses for all," would allow the estimated 81,000 undocumented immigrants in Minnesota to take the state's knowledge test and receive a driver's license. 

It passed the House last month, and was approved in the Senate by a 34-31 vote early Wednesday after hours of discussion. It now heads to Gov. Tim Walz's desk for his signature. He is expected to sign it. 

Democrat lawmakers say the legislation will make life easier for undocumented people by allowing them to drive legally. The legislation has seen support from advocate groups who help immigrants, as well as business and law enforcement leaders, while Republicans have opposed it. 

The bill would reverse a 2003 rule change by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whose administration barred people without legal status from getting licenses in the name of security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. For the past 20 years, advocates have tried without success to reverse the policy, failing to win support when the DFL controlled the Legislature a decade ago.

When the bill was being debated in the House, immigrant families told lawmakers their loved ones face a tough choice: drive without a license and face arrest or be shut out of society without a vehicle. The problem is especially acute in the Twin Cities suburbs and rural areas that lack public transit coverage, they said.

"Without a license, I walked home consistently at 10 p.m. in winter storms, just because I was scared of being pulled over," said Sarah Silva of the Minnesota Immigration Rights Action Committee. "Your words of support and faith mean nothing until the bill is passed." 

Stearns County Sheriff Steve Soyka argued making the change would make Minnesota's roads safer by allowing law enforcement officials to better track repeat violators of Minnesota's traffic laws. 

"The reality is a majority of these parties are probably driving anyway for work purposes, and to have them properly licensed with proper training increases the safety for everyone involved," he said.  

Republicans raised concerns, questioning whether the bill lacked safeguards that would prevent people without legal status from using their driver's licenses to vote or gain state benefits.

Secretary of State Steve Simon downplayed concerns about voting. State law makes it a felony for a person to vote while ineligible. The office has the ability to cross-reference people granted temporary driver's licenses with a list of people ineligible to vote, a spokeswoman said.