The chairman of a key Texas House committee unveiled a bipartisan plan Wednesday that would allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally in the state.
Under a proposal laid out by state Rep. Byron Cook, chairman of the State Affairs Committee, undocumented immigrants living in Texas could be issued special “Texas resident driver’s permits.”
The permits would look different than regular driver licenses and couldn’t be used for any federal purposes, such as going through airport security.
The permits would allow undocumented drivers, who are on Texas roads already, to drive legally and get quality insurance, Cook said.
“It’s something that needs to be addressed in this session,” Cook, R-Corsicana, told the committee Wednesday. “It’s the best thing we can do for the state.”
Cook’s proposal is the latest idea to remedy unintended consequences of a 2011 law that called for proof of legal residence to obtain a drivers license. That law was intended to comply with the federal REAL ID act, which says legal residency is required for an ID to be federally recognized.
State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, filed House Bill 3206 earlier this session to reverse the 2011 state law, but it had little chance of passing the Legislature. Cook said his proposal — which the committee substituted for H.B. 3206 on Wednesday — has broad support in both the House and the Senate.
The new version of the bill would set many requirements for applicants including passing a driving test, proving Texas residency, submitting to criminal background check and getting fingerprinted.
Alonzo said he is happy with the substitute.
“It allows people to drive legally” and makes sure drivers know the rules of the road, Alonzo said. He added that the issue of driver permits is regularly featured in Spanish-language media in Texas.
Sen. Tommy Williams, who authored the 2011 statute, said last month he could support a permit measure but not a repeal of his measure.
Texas’ business establishment also supports Cook’s idea because it would lead to more insured drivers, said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business.
No one testified against the bill Wednesday, but Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said opposition could come from tea party-backed Republicans who maintain strict stands on all immigration-related bills and would be loathe to grant undocumented immigrants any kind of legal status.
Gov. Rick Perry has said he wouldn’t be in favor of compromising Texas driver’s licenses, but he has not stated a definitive position on the limited-purpose driver permits.
But Jillson said the permit debate could put Perry in an interesting position, especially if he runs for re-election in 2014.
“He’ll be tempted to tilt toward the tea party wing,” but his better move in the long term will be with the business wing, Jillson said.
By 2014 — and certainly by 2016, if Perry runs for president — immigration-related issues will be less objectionable to the right-wing of the Republican Party, Jillson predicted.
Norman Adams, a Republican activist from Houston and one of the people who negotiated a guest worker plank in the Republican Party of Texas’ platform,said he would try to persuade Perry to back the permit idea for the more than 2 million undocumented immigrants believed to be driving on Texas roads.
“This is just common-sense legislation,” he said, adding that it makes good political sense too.
Republicans lost elections in 2012 because Hispanic Americans thought “Republicans want to deport their momma and daddy.”
“That’s what we’ve got to change,” Adams said. “Governor Perry is one of my missions.”