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Bill Would Let Undocumented Immigrants Get Driver's Permit

Members of the House State Affairs Committee on Wednesday seemed amenable to a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants a permit to drive after passing a background check and a driving test.

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A Texas House committee on Wednesday heard testimony on a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s permits after submitting to background checks, fingerprints and paying about $150 in fees.

House Bill 3206, by state Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, would also mandate that applicants pass a driving test to get the document, which would allow holders to legally register their vehicles and obtain auto insurance. The measure has the support of state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the chairman of the powerful State Affairs Committee, who presided over contentious immigration proposals before the Legislature two years ago. There are about 1.6 million undocumented immigrants in Texas.

The bill was left pending in committee, but Cook praised Alonzo’s work and willingness to amend the bill and make it more palatable for lawmakers.

“I hope we are successful and we can get a bill signed,” Cook said.

The hearing came the same day that the so-called Gang of Eight — a bipartisan group of U.S. senators — filed a sweeping comprehensive immigration reform bill. The 800-page measure includes, among other things, a 13-year path to citizenship for millions living in the country illegally, stronger border security, mandatory use of an electronic employment verification system and an expanded visa system.

It’s been largely hailed as a great starting point for a debate lawmakers, business leaders and immigrant rights groups agree is urgently needed. But the legislation also indicates there will be a long road before anything is agreed to, meaning state governments will still have to grapple with immigration issues in the meantime.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo testified in favor of the bill, arguing that it made sense from a public safety and economic standpoint.

“It will absolutely enhance safety. There is nothing more frustrating than being hit by an individual and when you go to exchange information, there is no ID,” he said. “More importantly, it goes toward helping us investigate all crime. We now have a picture and we now have fingerprints.”

Norm Adams, the Republican co-founder of Texans for Sensible Immigration Policy, has been lobbying in favor of the bill for months. An insurance salesman, Adams said he knows of several undocumented commercial drivers who are certified by the Department of Transportation, which he said requires a rigorous and challenging testing process, who are subsequently unable to renew a state driver’s license.

“That is a possibility that all of our Texas business owners face with uninsured drivers who are probably undocumented,” he testified. “These people are driving without a driver’s license.”

Cook said he would continue to work with Senate Republicans on the measure. The Legislature is approaching its final weeks of business.

Current law requires that applicants for new or renewed driver’s licenses show proof of legal status. The measure was codified in 2011 during the 82nd Texas Legislature after the Texas Department of Public Safety enacted the rule in 2008. It was challenged in courts after plaintiffs said the department acted without legislative authority. The measure failed to pass in 2009 as a stand-alone bill but was amended to a fiscal matters bill in 2011.

Current policy allows some undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license, such as those who qualify for deferred action, where they are granted a two-year reprieve from deportation proceedings.

Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for DPS, said the agency does not take a position on pending legislation.

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