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August 1, 2015

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Both parties jump on board with proposal to give driving privileges to illegal immigrants

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Sen. Mo Denis asks a question during a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee on the second day of the 2011 legislative session Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011, in Carson City.

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Senator-elect Michael Roberson speaks at the Republican election night party Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010, at the Venetian.

Sure, the losing side typically engages in a bit of soul-searching following a major election, but the 2012 election seems to have sent Nevada politics skittering off into Bizarro World.

Suddenly, a Tea Party group is acting like Democrats and a leading Democrat is acting like a Republican.

In just the past week, Nevada’s Democratic secretary of state has put forward a voter identification law proposal and a conservative Tea Party group has recommended a driver’s license scheme for illegal immigrants.

Indeed, just days after the Las Vegas Review-Journal featured an interview with the leaders of the Grass Roots Tea Party of Nevada — which supports a Utah-style driver’s privilege card for undocumented immigrants — Democrats in the Nevada Legislature held a press conference to publicize proposed legislation to create such a driver’s privilege card.

The coincidence led Republican leader Sen. Michael Roberson to poke fun at his Democratic counterpart, Majority Leader Mo Denis.

“I joked to Sen. Denis this morning that I’m glad to see he is following the lead of the Tea Party,” Roberson said Tuesday.

Denis submitted the bill draft request last month — a date Democrats are keen to point out so they get credit for being first with the proposal. Under his proposed legislation, Nevada would issue driver’s privilege cards to undocumented immigrants and anyone else who wants to drive legally but doesn’t want to, or can’t, qualify for a full driver’s license.

The privilege cards would allow immigrants to drive legally and obtain liability insurance but could not be used for identification.

If Nevada passes the legislation, it would be one of just a few states to allow undocumented immigrants the ability to drive legally.

Only one state — Utah — has a similar card. Two states — New Mexico and Washington — issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. This week, the Illinois Legislature is considering passing similar legislation.

“This really is an issue about safety,” Denis said. “We’ve had a lot of hit-and-runs that occur because of individuals driving without a license.

“So, the concept is basically giving somebody permission to drive. This isn’t just about undocumented individuals. Some people are here legally on a visa and normally wouldn’t be allowed to get a license. Or maybe there is a citizen who wouldn’t want to go through the process now for the driver’s license with all of the requirements under the Real ID act.”

The issue has been rather controversial, especially among Republicans. Opponents of the measure don’t believe immigrants who arrived illegally should be granted driving privileges.

But after Republicans lost badly among Hispanic voters — a bloc growing in size and influence — they have quickly begun embracing issues important to Latino voters, even issues not traditionally popular with their own base.

Last week, both Roberson and Gov. Brian Sandoval expressed support for a state policy that allows the DMV to issue driver’s licenses to young immigrants brought to the country illegally who are eligible for a deportation reprieve through President Barack Obama’s deferred action program.

On Tuesday, Roberson voiced strong support for a Utah-style driver’s privilege card for undocumented immigrants, adding that the Republican caucus may come out with its own proposal soon.

“A lot of immigrants in Nevada are on the roads now, whether it’s to get back and forth to school or get children back and forth to school or to go to work,” Roberson said. “The fact that these immigrants may be driving without a license or card and without insurance, I think we can do better than that as a state.”

Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Reno, took the opportunity to point out what he believes is the hypocrisy by some legislative Democrats who oppose Secretary of State Ross Miller’s voter identification proposal while supporting the driver’s privilege card idea.

“I think there’s a little inconsistency in approving of a driver’s license for certain folks, but not an ID for voting,” Hickey said.

Not all Republicans are jumping on board.

Sen. Don Gustavson, R-Reno, one of the Legislature’s most conservative Republicans, was dismayed by the idea of granting driving privileges to undocumented immigrants.

“I would not be supportive just letting people come in the country illegally and giving them a driver’s license. No!” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to allow them to come in the country illegally then give permission to drive legally.”

Of course, the details still have to be hashed out. Denis said he isn't certain yet what requirements driver’s privilege card applicants would have to meet to be eligible.

But he noted he opposes recent changes Utah made to its driver’s privilege card program, which require applicants to provide a criminal background check and fingerprints.

Denis also said he would seek assurances that Immigrant and Customs Enforcement officials wouldn’t use the permit database to identify immigrants for deportation.

“That’s something that came up in Utah and they were able to work out,” Denis said. “ICE just can’t come in and do that. ICE doesn’t normally do that anyway. For me, we are going to have to have some kind of assurance that this is not going to happen.”

Roberson said those issues will have to be “discussed and debated.”

“It’s clear to me that Washington needs to do its job and both parties need to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “But in the meantime, we have a real safety issue here.”

Sandoval also remained open to the concept of a driver's privilege card.

"The governor remains opposed to granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants," his spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said in a written statement. "The governor is also familiar with the concept of the driver’s privilege card law in Utah. However, given the fact that Sen. Denis’s proposed bill may contain material differences to the Utah law, the governor will refrain from further comment until he is able to fully review the bill."

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