ST. PAUL-Gov. Mark Dayton wants to enable undocumented immigrants to get Minnesota driver's licenses and he wants the Legislature's Real ID bill to help make that happen, he told the Pioneer Press on Tuesday.
As they stand, both the House and Senate measures to bring Minnesota into compliance with the federal Real ID standards would bar the possibility of the administration creating licenses for people in the country illegally. But Dayton said Democrats, particularly in the Senate, can change that.
"If they want this window of opportunity, they are going to need to create it," Dayton said in an interview. He made that case very clear to Senate Democrats in a private meeting Tuesday evening.
The issue of driver's licenses for immigrants without legal permission to be in the country has been a controversial topic in the Legislature for years. Advocates fiercely believe that allowing undocumented immigrants legal access to licenses would make the roads safer for all. Opponents say that illegal immigrants are breaking the law and that granting them licenses would condone their criminal presence.
More than a dozen states allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses. Despite legislative efforts over the past few years - including passage in the Senate when it was controlled by Democrats - Minnesota is not among them.
Although the House and Senate bills wInding their way through the Legislature differ in several respects, neither would allow the governor's administration to usher in driver's licenses for non-citizens or legal visa holders, Dayton said.
Rep. Dennis Smith, R-Maple Grove, said that prohibition is unlikely to change in the House. He is the key sponsor of the House Real ID bill, which was approved on a 72-58 vote last week.
"Real ID is not about the immigration policy for Minnesota," Smith said.
In the House, the bill had lopsided partisan support - only four Democrats voted for the House measure and only eight Republicans voted against it.
Smith said he was aware of the governor's position on linking the two issues and said the question of driver's licenses for undocumented Minnesotans should be a "stand-alone issue."
Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, is the Senate chief sponsor of the Real ID measure. His bill only lets the administration make rules allowing implementation of the federal Real ID requirements. It would not give Dayton the window to immigrant driver's licenses he desires.
"We don't want to play politics with our Real ID bill," he said.
The federal Department of Homeland Security has said it will not accept non-Real ID compliant licenses at airports, military bases or at other federal checkpoints after next year. Minnesota driver's licenses currently do not meet the federal requirements, although the state's enhanced driver's licenses, federal passports and other identification do comply.
While undocumented immigrants cannot get Real ID-compliant licenses - those are reserved for citizens or legal immigrants - both the House and Senate would create a second tier of licenses that could not be used for federal purposes. It is that second, non-compliant tier that advocates want undocumented immigrants to be able to access.
The dispute over immigration may have extra weight when the Senate version gets to the floor. There are some Senate Republicans who are against implementing Real ID because they have privacy concerns or feel the federal government dictating to states how to conduct their licensing is unconstitutional overreach. That means to win approval the Real ID bill will need DFL support. Republicans only have a one-member margin in the 67-member Senate.
"The DFL has got to assert itself," said Dayton. The governor said current law would not allow the state to create immigrant driver's licenses through rulemaking.
That's exactly what immigration advocates have been working toward.
Felipe Illescas, Pillsbury United Communities-Waite House public policy manager, said the governor has become more vocal in his support for undocumented immigrant driver's licenses. Dayton came into office an opponent of immigrant driver's licenses but changed his mind about four years ago.
While he is still not sure if the advocates will prevail this year, Illescas said "I'm actually more confident than I was two weeks ago."
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said Republicans have to ask themselves: "Do they want to pass Real ID more than they dislike immigrant people?"
Dibble is a longtime backer of getting undocumented immigrants driver's licenses and sponsored the Real ID measure last year. He said he wants to make sure "at a minimum" that this year's bill does not move away from the possibility of granting immigrants licenses.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said getting undocumented immigrants those licenses just makes sense.
"These people are out driving now," Bakk said. Granting them licenses would ensure they meet a driving test and have auto insurance.
He said, personally, he is not inclined to vote for the Real ID bill as it now stands but is not going to ask the 32 other Senate Democrats to follow suit.
Dayton would not say how far he would take his advocacy for immigrant licenses. Asked if he would veto a Real ID bill that, in his view, barred the state from granting immigrants driver's licenses, he said: "I'm not prepared to say at this point but the imperative of passing the Real ID bill is overwhelming."