WILLMAR - Supporters and opponents of allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses were in attendence at a town hall meeting Saturday morning at Cornerstone Coffee in Willmar. The issue even split the two lawmakers holding the event, even though they are from the same party.
Representative Dave Baker of House District 17B and Senator Andrew Lang of Senate District 17, both Republicans, spoke about a variety of issues and upcoming legislation, but it was the Freedom to Drive bill, House File 1500, which allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses in Minnesota, that brought foward the most emotion.
Baker supports the legislation, and he voted for it on April 5 in the House, only one of two Republicans in the House to do so. It passed 74-52.
For Baker, the issue is all about safety on the roads and not immigration. Those who want a license will need to take a driver's test and get insurance. The card will not look like a regular driver's license and will say across the front that the holder is not allowed to vote.
"It gives them the ability to drive on the roads. That is it, period. It doesn't give them the vote, they can't get on an airplane, it doesn't give them Social Security benefits," and it can't be used as documentation for employment, Baker said.
Lang, who does see it as an immigration issue, does not support the measure.
"I will not vote for it," Lang said, who wants to see legal immigrants become citizens and receive all the benefits that gives people. "Legal immigration provides a few things. It provides you citizenship, it provides you a driver's license."
The odds of the Senate even voting on the issue this session are slim, Lang said. It was just handed to the Senate from the House on April 8 and Lang doesn't feel there is enough time for the bill to make it all the way through the Senate this year.
"It was dropped in the day before the deadline," Lang said. "It was never going to get a hearing. I won't have the vote, this year."
The constituents who attended the town hall were just as split on the issue. Some were adamant undocumented immigrants should not be given benefits like a driver's license.
"There is nothing legal about illegal," one man in the audience said.
There were also many supporters of the Freedom to Drive bill, including a large contingent from Montevideo.
"This is something the state can do that won't harm us," one supporter said. "These are my neighbors and I feel like this is the right thing to do."
The group from Montevideo tried several times to get Lang to agree to a meeting in Montevideo, so he could speak with more of those who support the issue.
"Yes or no, are you going to come and meet with us?" a supporter demanded.
Lang said he has met with supporters several times in other locations, but they keep asking for more.
"You obviously don't respect how I view this, because you keep asking again and again and again after our meetings," Lang said.
The driver's license legislation was just one of the many issues the two legislators spoke on. Other topics included the hands-free device bill, taxes, the troubled Minnesota License and Registration System and fraud in the Child Care Assistance Program.
With a DFL-lead House and a GOP-lead Senate, disagreement is common on a whole range of issues and no one is sure how everything will play out.
"We are kind of in the mix of it right now, the throes of session," Lang said. "In all honesty it is going to be a tough last few weeks of session, it is going to be."