Backlash continued to rain down on Gov. JB Pritzker Wednesday following his decision last week to close enrollment for a state-funded health insurance program for immigrants under 65 as other Illinois officials highlighted that a bill is sitting on the governor’s desk that would allow the state to issue regular driver’s licenses for noncitizens.

Though not connected, the two issues took center stage as Pritzker continued to push back against criticism from Latino lawmakers and immigrant advocates that his administration’s decision on the health insurance program was “immoral and fiscally shortsighted.” Pritzker has defended the move because program costs are skyrocketing.

But protesters gathered at the Federal Plaza downtown for a “die-in,” in which they hammered Pritzker and carried signs in both English and Spanish declaring health care as a human right.

“I’m enraged that instead of getting to celebrate the lives that have lived and thrived under this program, we have to give our office of the governor the visual that they will react to, which is the lives that will die,” said Graciela Guzman, a former campaign director for Healthy Illinois, a coalition of pro-immigrant and health care advocates. “I’m here to remind you that together in unity we can continue to make this push and we need to.”

Rallying the crowd of nearly 100, community organizer Glo Choi added, shouting into a microphone: “We don’t want to just not die, right? We want to live. We want to thrive. We want our families, our grandchildren, our parents, our families to thrive. We demand Gov. Pritzker accepts these rules.”

In addition to closing the enrollment for the health insurance program for immigrants under 65 who are in the country without legal permission, the Pritzker’s administration last week announced it would also cap enrollment for those 65 and older. The changes are scheduled to take effect July 1, which is the start of the state’s budget year, and come after Pritzker struck a $50.4 billion budget deal in May with Democrats in the General Assembly that allocated $550 million for the program, about half of what the program was projected to cost.

The budget deal placed responsibility for the program squarely in Pritzker’s lap, and the move is proving to be a growing political liability for the governor early in his second term. While Pritzker is trying to balance the political and fiscal realities, a bill that immigrants advocate wants that would allow the state to issue regular driver’s licenses for noncitizens awaits the governor’s signature.

Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias gathered with advocates and lawmakers in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood to promote the bill, which would change the licenses for undocumented immigrants. Currently, the state law calls for temporary visitor’s driver’s licenses, or TVDLs, but proponents of the new bill argue those temporary licenses stigmatize noncitizens because they can’t be used as valid identification and they make law enforcement or other entities aware the motorist is not legally in the US

The new four-year licenses would replace TVDLs and include the wording “Federal Limits Apply” instead of the current phrase, “Not Valid for Identification,” which has a purple marking above it. TVDLs can’t be used for routine tasks such as picking up medication from a pharmacy, signing an apartment lease or verifying someone’s age, Giannoulias said.

“TVDLs have become a scarlet letter of someone’s immigration status and sadly exposes them to discrimination or immigration enforcement,” Giannoulias said. “Our state embraces people from all backgrounds. Our communities are more vibrant because of this welcoming culture that has been woven (into the) fabric of Illinois.”

“This effort is not just about fairness and equality,” he added, “It’s also about safety. Allowing immigrants to earn a driver’s license regardless of their legal status improves road safety for everyone on the road.”

When asked whether the governor plans to sign the driver’s license bill into law and if that would ease any criticism he’s received for his handling for the health care program, a Pritzker spokesman said the governor “looks forward to reviewing the bill.” The spokesman highlighted the administration’s support of immigrants and refugees, which he said included “cash assistance, housing and utility assistance, employment and job training services, and health care education.”

“The state of Illinois is continuing its investment in health care with more than $500 million going towards a program that will provide health care for more than 63,000 people,” the spokesman, Alex Gough, said in a statement. “These are major successes for the immigrant community and the Governor is proud of his record.”

Created in 2020, the program originally provided Medicaid-style coverage to immigrants 65 and older who are in the country without legal permission or who have green cards but haven’t completed a five-year waiting period and are therefore ineligible for the traditional health insurance program for the poor, which is jointly funded by the federal government.

Since then, the program has been expanded twice, and it now covers those 42 and older. Advocates and some Democratic lawmakers pushed unsuccessfully during the spring legislative session to further expand the program to cover those 19 and older, as it became clear that there were concerns about whether the state could afford to fund the existing program at its current level.

Under the driver’s license bill, noncitizens would still have to go to vehicle services facilities to take the necessary vision and written tests and must prove they have auto insurance, Giannoulias said. According to the secretary of state’s office, the ID cards are not compliant with the federal government’s REAL ID Act program, which tightened security standards for state-issued identification.

The measure also prohibits immigration authorities from using data for these new IDs unless authorities provide a court-issued warrant, order or subpoena to request personal identifying information, Giannoulias’ office said.

State Rep. Barbara Hernandez, a Democrat from Aurora who sponsored the legislation, recalled to the crowd how she and her father many years ago attended a public meeting where her father voiced his support for the driver’s license legislation “as he desperately needed this driver’s license to get to work and prevent anyone from stopping him and being pulled over.”

“This is why I’m extremely grateful to have been able to be part of this bill and help other families that might be in the same situation as my dad was once,” Hernandez said. “(There’s) a lot of families that need this form of identification and have been told for several years, almost 10 years, that they couldn’t use this identification.”

If Pritzker signs the bill into law, the secretary of state’s office said, Illinois would join other states such as California, Oregon, Colorado, Maryland, New York and New Jersey that have similar processes for noncitizens acquiring driver’s licenses.

While Hernandez said he’s pleased that immigrants in the country without legal permission would obtain regular driver’s licenses if the governor signs the bill, he said health care remains a “big, big component” for this population.

“For several years, the undocumented community has lived without health care and maybe that is why the whole process of the health care is so expensive now because we could’ve done this years ago and prevented any additional sickness,” she said. “But because we have neglected them for so long, now they have illnesses that they have to be in constant observation, or medication, and of course it’s going to be costly for the state, unfortunately.”

At the news conference in Plisen, Giannoulias was hesitant to speak about whether Pritzker’s signature on the driver’s license bill would soften the scrutiny he’s been under with the immigrant health care program. Giannoulias instead focused on the driver’s license legislation.

“From the secretary of state’s vantage point, this is about equality. It’s about fairness. He’s shown us every indication that he will sign it. To me, it happens to be a no-brainer,” he said.

State Sen. Omar Aquino, a Chicago Democrat who attended both the news conference with Giannoulias and the die-in at Federal Plaza, warned the crowd that the state rules “have very simple consequences” and “it is a life-or-death situation.”

“It is not right in the most wealthy by far country in the world, for us to have to make decisions of who lives or dies, is not right,” he shouted without a microphone, leading to some applause. “Ever more is it ever important to make sure that we are telling immigrants in this state that you are one of us, that we care for you and your families.”

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