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House passes immigrant license bill with unclear future

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House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler explained his driver's license bill ahead of a House debate. Tim Pugmire|MPR News

The Minnesota House passed legislation Friday that would allow people in Minnesota to obtain a license or state ID card without showing proof of their legal status in the United States.

The vote was 74-52.

Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, the bill’s chief sponsor, said the change would enhance public safety, improve the economy and enhance human dignity.

“House File 1500 moves us to a time again when it is not necessary to demonstrate legal status in the United States in order to have legal authority to drive on Minnesota’s roads, purchase insurance and live your life.”

Winkler said the bill, which would reverse a decision made in 2003, also includes data protections for people who apply for licenses. The Department of Public Safety would be prohibited from sharing information on the applicants with federal agencies.

“We want to make sure that if we’re going to create this driver’s license that people coming forward to apply for it do not need to fear that they will be subjecting themselves to deportation or investigation merely by the fact that they’ve applied for the license,” he said.

But some lawmakers questioned the impact of the legislation. One of the bill’s opponents, Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, warned that the licenses could attract more unauthorized immigrants to the state.

“Let’s not incentivize immigrants to come here illegally,” Gruenhagen said. “The more benefits we give them the more incentivizing there is to go though a gauntlet that exploits them criminally, exploits them financially and even can cause their murder or dying in a terrible way.”

Other lawmakers shared similar concerns, but Rep. Alice Mann, DFL- Lakeville, rejected the argument.

“I am going to risk my life, my family’s life, my children’s life. I’m going to go through the desert. I’m going put them on a boat. I’m going to do all sorts of crazy things to get them to safety, so I can get a driver’s license, said no one ever,” Mann said.

There is no companion bill in the Republican-controlled Senate. Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, responded critically to the House action.

“Minnesota shouldn’t be in the business of incentivizing illegal behavior, and by allowing illegal and undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses that’s exactly what our state would be doing,” Ingebrigtsen said in a statement. “I am concerned of the dangerous precedent that it will set and how it will undermine our current laws.”

Still, House Democrats are counting on further debate. Winkler said the measure is also traveling in a larger transportation bill to ensure it is part of end-of-session negotiations.

In addition, DFL Gov. Tim Walz repeated his support for the bill Friday during an interview on MPR News.

“I just think it makes sense," he said. "If you’re going to be on the road, license people. If you’re going to be on the road, have insurance. If you’re going to need to get to work and get your kids to the doctor, let’s do that with the dignity that comes with that.”