The crowd filled the auditorium, cafeteria and gymnasium of Wilbur Cross High School, where members of the legislature's transportation committee had gathered to collect testimony.
They heard from Mayor John DeStefano, top legislative leaders and Catholic priests. But they also heard from dozens of illegal immigrants, who brought deeply personal stories, in both English and Spanish, of how they must drive to get to work, or to pick up their children, even though they are breaking the law and live in fear of being stopped by police.
"We're always scared," said Veronica Noria, a factory worker in her 20s from Mexico who now lives in New Haven. "A lot of people get stopped on their way to work."
The debate in Connecticut comes as officials in Washington continue to spar over national immigration policy.
"We all know that our nation's immigration law is broken; this is part of the reason we have so many residents who lack legal credentials," said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat who introduced one of the proposals. "However, whatever may be your view on federal immigration policy, these individuals are residents of our communities and the question we need to answer is what policies regarding these residents will best serve the goals of enhanced public safety and sound public policy?"
Looney said the legislation represents "a common sense public safety measure" because more drivers would be trained and licensed. They would also be more likely to carry insurance.
As many of as 54,000 illegal immigrants would qualify if the legislation is approved. Connecticut would be the third state to enact such a law -- New Mexico, Washington state and, most recently Illinois, all offer some form of drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. Legislation is under consideration in several other states, including Massachusetts, Minnesota and California.
The Illinois law, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn earlier this year, provides illegal immigrants with the opportunity to obtain a special, three-year temporary license that cannot be used for identification to board an airplane or purchase a gun.
Melody A. Currey, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles, said such a policy "may be workable" here, and said she was willing to work with supporters of the bills.
Some critics have said issuing licenses to illegal immigrants opens the door to the potential for fraud, but supporters say there are enough safeguards in place to prevent that. No one who spoke Monday night opposed the bills.
Father James Manship, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in New Haven and a leading advocate for immigrant rights in the state, echoed Looney's argument that public safety will be enhanced if either Senate Bill 628 or Senate Bill 68 is approved by the legislature.
"Driving will be safer because more people be trained, tested and licensed," Manship told the committee. They will also have a greater stake in the civic life of the state.
But ultimately, Manship and others who back the bills say, it's a matter of fairness.
"To simply be able to drive your kids to school, to work and to do what so many of us take for granted --essential parts of life. It isn't possible for a great majority of our parishioners.
"Our folks want to drive legally, they want to buy a car, they want to pay sales tax, register their cars, insure them, pay their propety taxes to their municipalities," Manship said. "And they really want to wait in line at DMV to get their license."
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