A sharply divided Senate voted early Thursday to give final passage to a bill making Connecticut one of a handful of states allowing illegal immigrants to obtain a driver’s license.
Passage of the bill on a 19-16 vote came after an 18-month campaign by Latino and religious groups, particularly Catholic nuns, priests and bishops. The House passed it last week, 74-55.
“These are upstanding, decent people,” said Sister Mary Jude, the director of Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Norwich. “All they want to do is go to work and take their children to school.”
She was one of three nuns who waited outside the Senate chamber to lobby two Democrats opposed to the bill, Paul Doyle of Wethersfield and Cathy Osten of Sprague. Osten voted yes, Doyle voted no, as did Democrat Joan Hartley of Waterbury.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the first Democratic governor in 20 years, pledges to sign the bill into law, and the measure is expected to be a wedge issue in the 2014 campaigns for governor and General Assembly.
No Republican voted for the bill in either chamber, as members of the GOP minority admonished the Democratic majority for inappropriately inserting itself into the federal debate on immigration law.
“That’s not your job, to fix immigration in America,” said Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury. He was chief of staff to the mayor of Danbury, where illegal immigration has been a divisive issue.
Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and Senate Minority Leader John McKInney, R-Fairfield, each bemoaned the failure of Congress to pass immigration reform.
“The right way to do it is to get the federal government to resolve the immigration issue,” McKinney said.
Republicans said the bill rewards immigrants who are in the country illegally. Democrats said it is a pragmatic way to give illegal immigrants a better quality of life while Congress struggles with immigration reform.
“We know that our national immigration law is broken,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven. “This step is really a modest one.”
Overall, Democrats downplayed passage as a political statement on an issue of national controversy, saying the bill primarily was intended to encourage immigrant drivers to be licensed and insured.
“What we have before us is a common-sense measure,” Williams said. “This is common-sense legislation to assist those who want to be law abiding.”
“Where we are at this evening is not an immigration debate,” said Sen. Andres Ayala Jr., D-Bridgeport, one of the first two Latinos elected to the Senate. “What is within our purview is to regulate the roadways, regulate the highways.”
Unlike in the House, where a Latino legislator took the lead in the debate, the job in the Senate fell to the co-chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, Sen. Andrew M. Maynard, D-Stonington.
“I’m hoping tonight we can lay out the case that this is common sense,” Maynard said, describing the bill as an issue of public safety in transportation.
The bill offers no immediate benefit for the estimated 54,000 undocumented immigrants who eventually will be eligible for a driver’s license. It doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2015.
The delay is intended to give a working group appointed by the administration and legislative leaders time to determine how to verify the authenticity of foreign identification documents.
The bill requires the commissioner of motor vehicles to issue a special license, one marked “FOR DRIVING PURPOSES ONLY.”
It requires applicants to provide primary and secondary forms of identification to prove identity and residency.
A primary form of ID includes a foreign passport issued by the applicant’s country of citizenship that is unexpired or expired for less than three years before the application. Also acceptable is a consular identification document or consular report of an applicant’s birth.
Applicants would have to undergo background checks for a felony conviction in Connecticut, but not other states. Republicans called that provision one of several flaws in the bill.
“The intention is a good one, but the execution is very poor,” said McKinney, the GOP leader.
Several Republicans questioned whether the proof of identification were sufficient.
Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, raised the specter of terrorists obtaining a Connecticut driver’s license.
But Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, said the issues of identification could be resolved. He would vote no for another reason: Opposition to any form of secondary status as a resident of the U.S.
“I oppose this legislation because I believe firmly in the essential importance of citizenship,” Markley said. “And I believe there is no other ground on which we can meet, but as citizens of the United States. As citizens, we are equal. We stand on the same principles. We stand devoted to the same flag. We are subject to the same laws.”
Observers in the Senate gallery included Michael C. Culhane, the director of the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conferences, the lobbying arm of the Catholic bishops, and the Rev. James Manship, a leader of CONECT, Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut.
Culhane said the bishops urged pastors to support the bill from their pulpits.
Manship was mentioned from the floor by several legislators, both those who supported and opposed the measure.
“There’s been several teams of clergy up here,” said Manship, the pastor of St. Rose of Lima in New Haven. “This is common-sense legislation, the safety and welfare of drivers.”
Cheers echoed through the Capitol after the final vote at about 12:40 a.m., nearly six hours after debate began.