An effort to give undocumented people the ability to get driver’s licenses is largely stuck in neutral, caught between two political visions about how such people should be treated.

Many Democrats see undocumented immigrants as an inescapable part of a community’s fabric. Whether people like it or not, they are here in Minnesota by the tens of thousands. And they will drive.

The interests of public safety demand that they have access to driver’s licenses to ensure an acceptable level of driving competency and that they have insurance.

“I see it as a public safety issue,” said Leticia Flores, a leader with Vecinos Rochester, part of a coalition of 50 nonprofits statewide that support the idea. “I’m a mom with three kids, and I want the roads to be safe.”

Many Republicans, on the other hand, view the concept behind the “Driver’s Licenses for All” legislation with incomprehension. To them, it is the height of illogic to grant driving privileges to people who aren’t legally supposed to be here anyway. “The whole concept of having driver’s licenses, when you can’t be here, just makes no sense to me whatsoever,” said Rep. Greg Davids, a Preston Republican. “The issue is: Can they be here in the first place and the answer is no.”

The Democratic-led Minnesota House voted 74-52 earlier this month to give undocumented immigrants the ability to get driver’s licenses. The Republican-controlled Senate has held no hearings, and there is little expectation that it will get a floor vote.

The issue could conceivably emerge in conference committee talks, but the idea that an agreement could be reached on such a complicated and divisive issue seems remote at this point, said one area legislator.

“I don’t think it’s probably going to be part of this year’s legislative agenda,” said Sen. Dave Senjem, a Republican from Rochester. “It’s certainly been part of the conversation with respect to this year’s agenda, both back home and at the state Capitol.”

DFL Gov. Tim Walz supports the measure, and if it were to get out of the Minnesota Legislature, the state would become the 13th in the nation to provide driver’s licenses to those without legal status.

Senjem, unlike many Republicans, supports the idea of allowing undocumented people to get driver’s licenses. But he wants to better understand the implications of the legislation before giving his support to the bill.

But with the end of the session a month away and a crush of work still to be done on a number of hot-button topics, including a proposed gas tax increase, Senjem thinks it would be better to tackle the issue next year, during a non-budget year.

Some are already predicting that DFL Gov. Tim Walz and the GOP Senate will fail to reach a budget agreement, triggering a government shutdown.

“I see a shutdown in July. You heard it here first,” Davids said. “I don’t see this coming together” by the end of session.

There are an estimated 95,000 immigrants who live in Minnesota illegally. Of those, 5,800 are in Southeast Minnesota and 2,800 in Olmsted County, said Phil Wheeler, a former demographer and advocate for immigrants’ rights.

Undocumented immigrants have been able to obtain Minnesota driver’s licenses in the past. But the privilege was taken away in 2003 under the administration of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty amid heightened security concerns in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Advocates for undocumented immigrants have been fighting to restore the privilege for the past 15 years.

“If we really want to have a safe city, a safe state, and we really want to know who’s in the city, who’s in our county, what better way to have that information than in a picture ID,” Flores said.

Supporters of the legislation say it’s not just a public safety issue, but one that has workforce and economic implications for the area. Some dairy farms rely on undocumented workers to work their farms, but the workers need to drive to reach rural areas. Some restaurants are also dependent on undocumented labor. It has not become uncommon for restaurants in the area to close for lack of enough of workers.

There is also the uncertainty and anxiety created within families when one parent is undocumented.

“We have a children who are citizens in mixed families,” said Dr. Aleta Borrud, a Rochester advocate for the legislation. “One parent might be a citizen on paper and the other is an undocumented resident. This is terrifying for families, and it creates a lot of economic instability.”

Conservative critics have cast the legislation as a threat to the integrity of elections. Flores said advocates have worked to address those concerns by agreeing to put a warning on the license. Skeptics have also sought a requirement that the licenses be renewed every two years, instead of every four years. Advocates have agreed to that as well, Flores said.

Flores said if it doesn’t happen this year, supporters will be back next year.

“We’ve been fighting for 15 years and we’re not going to give up,” Flores said. “We always have hope. The capital is a always changing. It’s a fast pace there. You never know.”

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Reporter

Matt, a graduate of Toledo University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, got his start in journalism in the U.S. Army. For the last 16 years, he has worked at the PB and currently reports on politics and life.