A Galway native who has long campaigned for the undocumented Irish in the US has welcomed the signing into law this week of a bill that will provide temporary drivers licenses for illegal immigrants in Illinois.
Speaking to the Galway Independent, Chicago resident Billy Lawless, Chairman of the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform, said he has campaigned on the issue for the past decade, having moved to the US in 1998.
The new bill allows any immigrant in Illinois to secure a temporary visitors driver’s license if they can provide proof of residency in Illinois for the last year, a valid passport or consular ID, and pass all road tests.
The new licenses, which will be made available from 1 October, will prevent drivers from being incarcerated and potentially deported for not having a license if pulled over by a police officer.
“You will be tested, you will be safe to drive and you will be able to get insurance, which is the most important thing,” said Mr Lawless. “I know a lot of Irish that are driving around for as long as I know them without a license and no insurance.”
There are currently an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 undocumented Irish migrants in Illinois and between 40,000-50,000 overall in the US, and there has been a “very positive” reaction on the ground to the introduction of the new licenses, according to Mr Lawless.
Irish lobby group, the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform were instrumental in securing bipartisan support for the new licensing system, with Mr Lawless suggesting that “the key to our success in Illinois was strength in unity with our immigrant cousins from other countries”.
The publican turned restaurateur said that, while migrant rights campaigners “won’t hold [their] breath”, he has never seen so much positive political activity in relation to immigration as he has recently.
Earlier this week, eight Democratic and Republican senators unveiled plans for comprehensive immigration reform that would provide a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country, including the thousands of Irish currently in limbo there.
Mr Lawless, and other campaigners for the undocumented Irish, will now continue to lobby to ensure that any reforms introduced will include an E3 visa bill that could see 10,500 work visas granted to Irish people each year; 3,500 for those who have completed their Leaving Certificates, 3,500 for those with third level qualifications, and 3,500 for those with trades.
“We’re not going to lay up now; we’re pulling out everything and just fighting to the end now. We smell victory but I’m very practical about it; I’ve been at it so long,” said Mr Lawless.