The push and pull of immigration politics played out over a marathon House session that began Wednesday with bipartisan consensus on one bill and ended Thursday in partisan rancor on another.
In a vote likely to reverberate in the 2014 races for governor and General Assembly, the House voted 74-55 after sunrise Thursday for a bill allowing people in the country illegally to obtain a Connecticut driver’s license, beginning Jan. 1, 2015.
The same legislators began their workday a little after noon Wednesday with a 132-0 vote for a bill that limits the circumstances under which state and local law enforcement officers can detain illegal immigrants for deportation.
“The bookends of the day tell a very different story,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk.
Democrats led by Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, worked with the GOP on the detainer bill, but Cafero said Democrats prematurely dissolved a bipartisan working group on the driver’s licenses and forced a vote calculated to reinforce the Democratic Party’s support among Latino voters.
Both bills now go to the Senate, where Democrats hold a 22-14 advantage. If passed, Connecticut would join a handful of states to provide driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Colorado passed a similar bill two weeks ago.
“It’s been a long, exciting, but tiring day,” said Ana Maria Rivera, a legal and policy analyst at Junta for Progressive Action in New Haven, part of the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance. At 5 a.m., she was one of seven spectators in the House gallery, six of whom were awake.
Debate began at 10:10 p.m. Wednesday and concluded at 5:48 a.m. Thursday.
Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, who was the lead sponsor of the legislation, said the bill would improve pubic safety by allowing illegal immigrants to drive legally and with insurance.
The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Research estimates that 54,000 immigrants would obtain licenses under the bill over the next three years.
Applicants would have to prove identity with a passport, consular identification or other document and show that they had been living in Connecticut for at least 90 days. The bill would establish a working group to examine methods to verify foreign documents.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said last month he supports the bill as a matter of public safety.
“I want every driver in the state of Connecticut to prove that they are a safe driver, regardless of where they came from. You are visiting from Australia for an extended amount of time, you should get a license,” Malloy said. “Why even ask where someone is coming from? I don’t feel obligated to do that.”
Eleven of the General Assembly’s dozen Hispanic legislators sponsored the bill. The exception was Sen. Art Linares Jr. of Westbrook, the only Republican in the group.
Republicans complained that House Democrats abruptly scheduled the debate at the urging of Democratic State Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo and the party’s executive director, former state Sen. Jonathan Harris.
“So all of a sudden this went from being a policy debate to a political debate,” Cafero told reporters.
“Total fiction, based on nothing,” House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said of Cafero’s charge of political interference by DiNardo and Harris.
The bill was supported by the Service Employees International Union. An SEIU affiliate, 32BJ, represents many contract janitors from overseas. Some of their members work the overnight shift cleaning the State Capitol.
“We’re a union of immigrants, low-wage workers, service workres, janitors and nursing home workers, school bus drivers, and they all have family and friends and are close to an issue like this,” said Paul Filson, the political director of SEIU. “There are a lot of folks who care about this issue.”
Cafero said Republicans care, too. But he said Democrats rushed passage, rejecting a GOP proposal to conduct a study, then prepare a bill for action in 2014 — still faster than the effective date of Jan. 1, 2015, in the Democratic bill.
“There is a fundamental philosophical difference between the proponents of the bill and the opponents,” Sharkey said. “We’re committed to do it. Republicans want to study it. They are not committed to doing it.”
Nine Democrats joined 46 Republicans in opposition. Fifteen Democrats and six Republicans did not vote.
The 74 votes in favor were less than a majority of the House, which has 150 members and one open seat. But with only 129 members present, passage required only 65 votes.
GOP displeasure over the late-night debate was expressed in a one-sided political talk fest. Speakers peppered Candelaria with questions, trying to demonstrate the bill’s weaknesses as they stretched out the debate.
Others made objections heard in any debate over whether to extend some rights and privileges of citizenship to those without legal status.
“We are unfairly rewarding folks who don’t necessarily deseve it,” said Rep. Robert Sampson, R-Wolcott. “I think this bill encourages illegal immigration. It gives the seal of approval once you get this driver’s license.”
Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said she is married to an immigrant who took care to properly navigate the federal immigration system.
“They don’t make it easy for you,” Lavielle said. “So I admire anyone who is going through it, but it shouldn’t be given away.”
Sharkey, who took over as speaker in January, said he did not see the bill as part of the larger national debate over immigration reform.
“I see it as a public safety issue for the state of Connecticut,” Sharkey said. “I think to some extent this is getting drawn into the question of immigration issues. Whether these folks should be here or not is irrelevant. They’re here. We need to do something about it that’s realistic.”
BREAKING DOWN THE VOTE
Democrats: 74 yes, 9 no, 15 not voting
Republicans: 0 yes, 46 no, 6 not voting