Politics & Government

Wichita adds driver’s permits for illegal immigrants to legislative agenda

The proposed driver’s permits would differ from licenses because they could not be used to vote or go through airport security, but they would enable the workers to buy car insurance.
The proposed driver’s permits would differ from licenses because they could not be used to vote or go through airport security, but they would enable the workers to buy car insurance. File photo

The city of Wichita wants the state to allow illegal immigrants to obtain a driver’s permit.

The Wichita City Council voted 4-3 Tuesday to include the measure as part of its agenda for the upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 12.

When the session convenes the city will actively lobby on behalf of the policy, which allows immigrants who entered the country illegally to obtain driver’s permits for the purpose of buying car insurance.

Other states, such as Colorado and Illinois, have similar policies on the books.

Rep. Ponka-We Victors, D-Wichita, whose district includes a large Latino population, introduced the bill last session, but it failed to get a hearing. Now Victors will have the state’s largest city backing her efforts.

Victors told the council that the permits will increase safety by enabling illegal immigrants to purchase car insurance.

Council member Janet Miller agreed.

“This is a way to give them the option of getting insurance,” Miller said. “It’s not a fun time to be hit by someone without insurance.”

Council members Jeff Blubaugh and Lavonta Williams also supported the measure.

The permits would differ from driver’s licenses. A person could not use them at airport security or as an ID to vote, for example.

Mayor Carl Brewer was the policy’s primary supporter on the council, proposing it as part of the city’s agenda. “It’s the right thing to do,” Brewer said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The policy was opposed by Council Members Pete Meitzner, Jeff Longwell and James Clendenin.

“I’m confused why we as Wichita are (tackling) this issue specifically,” Meitzner said. “I would rather let the state solve this and not be weighing in from Wichita, Kansas, on a federal and state issue.”

Supporters of the policy say it’ll be beneficial for economic development by making it easier for illegal immigrants to work. That didn’t sit well with Clendenin.

“I’m having a hard time telling those people, documented or undocumented alike, you don’t have a job here but we’ll make it as easy as possible for the undocumented to have a job,” Clendenin said. “I know that sounds insensitive and not politically correct but I can’t support myself advocating for this issue at the state level.”

Liliana Gonzalez, who spoke on behalf of the bill at the council meeting, said afterward that “immigration is something that’s not going to go away, so trying to see how we can work together to make this process smoother (is a good idea).”

“There’s a lot of families out there that are driving without licenses and without insurance and if we can get them at least a permit to drive then they would have to go through the same steps as everybody else to pass their (driver’s) test,” said Gonzalez, who is the process of training to be an insurance agent. “So that way we know that they’re safe, they’re qualified to be on the road.”

Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a prominent activist in the national conservative immigration reform movement, criticized the proposed bill.

“It’s just bad policy. It makes it easier for illegal aliens to remain in the state of Kansas and take jobs away from Kansans. It facilitates more illegal immigration,” Kobach said. He also claimed it would be a misuse of taxpayer money for the city to lobby the Legislature on an issue where it doesn’t have “special expertise.”

“I would bet that not a single voter in the municipal election for city councilman elected their city councilperson in Wichita because of his or her position on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants,” Kobach said. “So the notion that the city – that these four city councilmen – are representing their constituents on this issue is laughable.”

Dale Goter, the city’s lobbyist, said Victors would take the lead on the issue, but that the city would push for hearings and encourage dialogue on the bill as long as it maintains its narrow focus.

“We’re not talking about creating citizenship, or voting rights, or anything like that. It’s simply about people driving for work,” Goter said. “So we’re going to try to be supportive and help them … and it’s significant. The city of Wichita has now endorsed this, so whether that’s the catalyst for other folks to look at it differently remains to be seen.”

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle