By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Undocumented immigrants in Illinois began taking road tests on Tuesday to qualify for driver's licenses, starting a process expected to be closely watched by other U.S. states that are preparing to implement similar laws.
Illinois is the largest U.S. state to implement legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to get licenses - following in the steps of New Mexico and Washington.
Ten states in 2013 including Illinois enacted laws allowing unauthorized immigrants to receive driver's licenses or permits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Implementation dates vary - California, the largest state by population, won't begin issuing licenses until 2015.
"They represent a growing trend toward inclusive state policies that recognize that immigrants are part of our community," said Melissa Keaney, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. "If someone's going to drive, we want them to be sure they know the rules off the road."
Keaney said "all eyes will be on Illinois" to see how their program works. About 25 states considered the issue in their 2013 legislative sessions, the NCSL said.
Supporters of the Illinois law said some 250,000 undocumented immigrants are already driving in the state, the fifth most populous. The new law requires them to take driver's tests and have liability insurance, thus making the roads safer, the supporters said.
Illinois started taking appointments for testing November 12, and has scheduled 5,500, according to Dave Druker, a spokesman for the Illinois Secretary of State.
Undocumented immigrants seeking a license in Illinois must show proof of insurance and, like other residents, must take a road test, a written test and a vision test. They also need to show they have lived in Illinois for a year by providing a rental agreement or other documents.
If the documents check out and the immigrants pass the tests, the licenses will be mailed to them, Druker said.
Druker said the program is starting slowly, with just four testing centers throughout the state and just six appointments in the Chicago office on Tuesday, to make sure everything goes smoothly.
The special licenses cost $30 and will have a purple border, as opposed to the red border of ordinary licenses, Druker said. They will be good for three years not four, and will be used for driving only - they can't be used to buy guns or board an airplane, he said.
The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police opposed the law because it did not require fingerprinting, which would identify whether someone applying for a license has committed any crimes, association executive director John Kennedy said.
Kennedy said the group did favor requiring undocumented immigrants to take driving tests and get insurance.
The Illinois Highway Safety Coalition said unlicensed uninsured drivers are involved in almost 80,000 accidents in the state each year, resulting in $660 million in damages. Unlicensed immigrant drivers account for $64 million in damage claims.
Licenses for undocumented immigrants have faced criticism. New Mexico Republican Governor Susana Martinez has repeatedly sought to repeal that state's law, arguing it is dangerous and enables fraud.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski)