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Tales from the Chief: Taking the wheel on 'Freedom to Drive'

The License Access and Public Safety Act — known more informally as the Freedom to Drive Act — has been a hot topic this session in the Minnesota Legislature.

It’s also been a popular subject of conversation in Worthington.

A February public forum at St. Mary’s School attracted 150 people, and many from Worthington traveled to St. Paul a few days later as part of the Freedom to Drive Minnesota Coalition for a rally at the Capitol in support of the legislation. Then, on April 28, more than 100 people participated in a march in Worthington that culminated in another event at St. Mary’s.

Among the vocal proponents of the bill has been District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, a co-author of the House version of the legislation that passed in April.

“This is not about politics. This is about safe roads and insured drivers,” Hamilton told The Globe in February. He explained that when he first learned eight to 10 years ago about the effort to allow immigrants to receive driver’s licenses, he ultimately made up his mind to support the idea after a conversation he had with a retired Worthington police chief. That chief told Hamilton there are only two options: either immigrants are trained, licensed and insured, and they get behind the wheel, or they are not trained, licensed or insured and they get behind the wheel.

It can’t be ignored that Hamilton is an anomaly in his willingness to get behind the wheel of “Freedom to Drive,” as an overwhelming number of state Republicans are hesitant to do so. And, considering the Senate is under GOP control — the May 20 end-of-session deadline is upon our doorstep, and no Senate version of the legislation has yet been written — chances of the bill becoming law don’t appear promising.

Immigration politics, unsurprisingly, appear poised to play a critical role in stymieing the legislation’s advancement. Hamilton said he has been asked on multiple occasions if a driver’s license under the new law would allow a non-citizen to vote. The bill states that the licenses will say "not for voting," in red, on the front.

There’s also another matter at play: the notion of giving a gift to people who don’t have legal status. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in February that “the waiting period for those that want to get (a driver’s license) right now is over 80 days” and that he wants initial focus to be on that. “My concern would be another issue rewarding people that are here illegally. Let’s focus first on the problems we have for people who are here legally.”

However, a letter of support from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce for the House version of the bill suggested strongly that Freedom to Drive does far more than “reward people that are here illegally.” In fact, it explained, it rewards us all.

“Minnesota employers rely on immigrant workers to serve their customers,” writes Laura Bordelon, Senior Vice President, Advocacy. “To do this safely, workers should complete drivers license training, testing and licensing requirements, including securing insurance. We believe this will make roads safer for all drivers.”

Notes St. Paul Chief of Police Todd Axtell in a letter of his own: “Unlicensed drivers endanger not only themselves, but all of us who drive, walk, bike or take transit to carry out our daily activities … Also, since all licensed drivers in Minnesota are required to carry insurance, we can decrease the number of instances of collisions where one or more of the drivers is uninsured.”

Additionally, the state Chamber notes in its letter that it “has completed a number of studies documenting the positive impacts of immigration through workforce participation, taxes paid, business ownership, home ownership and consumer power.” Immigrants have also helped offset a loss of population to other states, and while the Chamber believes in the need for “comprehensive immigration reform,” the state government should address “state-specific issues on this matter.”

Adds the Minnesota Catholic Conference, in a letter of support authored by The Most Rev. Andrew H. Cozzens: “It (legislation) is a concrete measure of solidarity that looks beyond the myriad reasons why someone is here illegally with their family and seeks to protect their well-being in the reality of their situation and in light of actual prospects for immigration reform and enforcement … As we seek to uphold the dignity of every human person created in the image and likeness of God, we must not ignore the common good, particularly the reality that with rights and privileges come responsibilities.”

“Freedom to Drive” would essentially restore a practice that was legal up until 2003. While there’s several reasons to support such a change, the reasons not to endorse it — worry about illegal voter restoration and a perceived reward to people not here legally — are (first) unfounded and (second) not in the overall interest of all Minnesotans.

Hamilton, in his own acknowledgement that the federal immigration system is broken, said “Freedom to Drive” is a proactive approach and focuses on what can be done at the state level. I agree, and hope the Minnesota Senate does as well.

Ryan McGaughey

I first joined the Daily Globe in April 2001 as sports editor. I later became the news editor in November 2002, and the managing editor in August 2006. I'm originally from New York State, and am married with two children.

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