SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The government of Puerto Rico is poised to approve a bill that would allow immigrants living in the U.S. territory illegally to obtain a temporary driver's license.
The island's House of Representatives approved the bill 29-18 this week, and the Senate and governor are expected to approve the measure in upcoming weeks. The law would go into effect one year after it is approved.
Rep. Javier Aponte Dalmau, who voted in favor of the bill, said in a phone interview Friday that it would provide more opportunities to those living here illegally.
"Their participation is important to our economic development," he said. "Closing borders and restricting entry goes against democratic principles, as well as economic ones."
The measure is already being celebrated by an estimated more than 150,000 immigrants from the Dominican Republic who live in Puerto Rico, along with thousands of other migrants from the Caribbean, including Haitians.
"It's a great achievement," said Jose Rodriguez, president of the Dominican Committee for Human Rights. "But we're also working to ensure that this does not turn into a witch hunt given that the licenses are going to be different."
Rodriguez said he is meeting with legislators to ensure that police would not randomly ask for provisional licenses to persecute migrants.
The license would be issued only to those who have lived in Puerto Rico for a year and have either a passport or an embassy-issued document proving their identity. They would still have to pass the standard driving and traffic-rules tests.
Migrants who receive a provisional driver's license would have to renew it every three years, compared with six years for a regular license. The provisional license also would feature a different design and state that it cannot be used as a form of identification or for any other purpose. The license would not say specifically that its holder is living illegally on the island.
Currently, Puerto Rico driver's licenses can be used as the sole identification document to travel to the U.S. mainland, though the different design of the new license might make that impossible.
Ivan Ortiz, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Puerto Rico, said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.
One legislator who voted against the measure said he worries that provisional licenses would be issued to potential terrorists, making it harder for authorities to track them down.
"It would open the door to more illegal immigration on one hand, and on the other hand, it creates a security flaw," said Rep. Luis Perez Ortiz.
If the measure is approved, Puerto Rico would join a handful of U.S. states in issuing such licenses.
Immigrants living illegally in New Mexico and Washington state can apply for the same driver's license as a U.S. citizen, while those in Utah can obtain a special driving permit that cannot be used for identification.