- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - With backing from Rhode Island’s governor, state police superintendent and Roman Catholic bishop, a movement to give driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally is getting more attention from state lawmakers this year.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and State Police Superintendent Steven O’Donnell are among several officials who sent letters to lawmakers this week strongly endorsing the legislation.

Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin, head of the Providence Diocese, also weighed in. He called it a practical approach and “common sense legislation that will do much more good than harm.”

Twelve states and Washington, D.C., now allow immigrants to drive if they have not established a lawful presence in the United States.

Rhode Island lawmakers have previously debated joining those states, which include neighboring Connecticut, in granting driving privileges to people who don’t have Social Security numbers or green cards. And it isn’t unusual for a Catholic leader to support immigration reform.

But Tobin’s newly voiced support for licenses makes a big difference in the heavily Catholic state, said Michael Araujo, executive director of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice and an advocate for the bill.

“It’s made the moral case much stronger,” he said.

What’s also different this year is that proponents are far more organized.

Hundreds of immigrants and their advocates have repeatedly crowded inside the Rhode Island State House for raucous rallies this winter and are planning weekly demonstrations in the spring as the General Assembly begins debating the legislation.

On Tuesday night, immigrants who can’t drive legally shared their experiences with lawmakers at an emotionally charged hearing of the House Judiciary Committee that lasted for several hours. A smaller group of opponents testified against it.

“We are rewarding this illegal behavior,” said Warwick resident Stacia Huyler.

In previous years, activists who supported the licenses “couldn’t muster the people to back it up,” Araujo said. “Legislators respond to presence and there wasn’t the presence. This year, that has changed.”

But the Democrats who hold a supermajority in both of the state’s legislative chambers are not all in favor of the idea.

Rep. Arthur Corvese, a North Providence Democrat, has introduced a bill to block the licenses and other measures that would assist immigrants who entered the country illegally.

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