By Christine Smith
Mayra Sarabia came to Chicago 23 years ago from Mexico hoping to make a better life for herself and her family. Unable to drive legally in Illinois because of her undocumented status, Sarabia jumped at the opportunity to obtain a valid license.
“I know cases of people who have been deported because of traffic violations,” she said, “so I always was afraid of what if I got stopped and end up incarcerated. After getting my license, I drive with more of a piece of mind now.”
Sarabia, 40, is one of thousands of undocumented Chicagoans who is newly qualified to drive legally because of Illinois’ expansion of its Temporary Visitor Driver’s License (TVDL) program in January 2014. The program, which now provides non-visa holding Illinois residents with a three-year driving license, has granted driving privileges to 88,680 Illinoisans within its first year of implementation, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Despite this higher than projected license distribution, government officials cite an ongoing effort to tweak the program and improve the appointment process.
“We’ve certainly had our bumps in the road along the way,” TVDL program director Lisa Grau said, “but we’ve made constant adjustments through all phases of the program.”
One of those adjustments, according to Grau, is the expansion of the application submission period from three to six months to better meet appointment demand.
And while community organizers, such as Southwest Organizing Project’s Imelda Salazar, believe that the long lines and limited appointment availability are not enough to undercut the benefits associated with the program, the program, according to Salazar, was not at the top of immigrants’ list of priorities.
“TVDL was not what we wanted,” Salazar said, “but we got it…and it really has changed the fear in Chicago about driving, but we would love for Chicago to one day be the city that gives IDs for all undocumented people.”
Netza Roldan, CEO of Chicago’s immigrant rights group CASA Mexico USA, also believes more work needs to be done, but says TVDL is a step toward attaining more rights for immigrants.
“TVDL is a great success because it can be the first step for legalization of a lot of people,” he said.
However, Grau notes that the program is not merely an immigration issue.
“Our point of view is that our job is to make the roads of Illinois safer,” she said, “and we really truly believe that by implementing this program, that’s what we’re achieving.”
Grau said the Secretary of State’s office hopes to surpass the number of temporary licenses it distributed this year by the program’s second anniversary in 2016.