- Associated Press - Sunday, February 26, 2017

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Dozens of immigrants and their supporters packed a legislative hearing Wednesday, outraged over a bill that would end Connecticut’s practice of providing “drive-only” licenses to people who can’t prove they’re living in the U.S. legally.

Similar bills have been proposed and defeated in previous years. But the opposition wasn’t taking any chances given President Donald Trump’s efforts to crack down on the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. - a sign the national debate has fueled an abnormally sensitive atmosphere in a blue state known for policies considered welcoming to immigrants.

“I think the anti-immigrant rhetoric on the national level has certainly opened the way for these anti-immigrant attacks to become more mainstream. But at the same time it has galvanized people who support immigrants,” said Carolina Bortelleto, co-founder of Connecticut Students for a Dream, a group pushing the General Assembly to allow students without legal status eligible for institutional financial aid at state-run colleges and universities.

That bill - proposed in each of the last several sessions - has also led to large numbers of immigrants, including those without proper legal status, appearing at the state Capitol this session for news conferences and public hearings. They’ve been decrying the current system which bars them from receiving the tuition-funded aid as unfair and encouraging state lawmakers to show the nation that Connecticut supports immigrants.

“I think the community definitely is more motivated to make their voices heard and to come out of the shadows in a sense,” Bortelleto said.

Republican Rep. Rob Sampson, author of the license repeal bill, has opposed the concept of the “drive-only” license since 2013 when it was first passed. He contends the state has no way of determining an immigrant’s driving history, creating a potential safety problem on the roads, and that it’s “bad public policy” to offer driver’s licenses to people living in the U.S. illegally.

Sampson has unsuccessfully attempted to repeal the bill in previous legislative sessions. While he filed this year’s bill in December, before Trump took office, the lawmaker said he’s now being painted as anti-immigrant.

“I feel horrible. I understand that these folks think I’m some horrible guy who is after them,” said Sampson, who contends he’s supportive of immigrants. Sampson said he wants them “to have a mechanism to come here honestly” and believes federal immigration reform is badly needed.

As of Jan. 24, there have been a total of 27,953 drive-only licenses issued in Connecticut since Jan. 2, 2015, according to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

State Rep. Antonio Guerrera, a Democrat, the House chairman of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee, made it clear during Wednesday’s hearing on Sampson’s bill that there’s little support for the legislation to make it out of committee this year.

“I don’t believe you’ll see the light of day for this bill,” Guerrera said.

Despite such assurances, many immigrants and their supporters still waited for hours to testify before the committee, including Doris Cordova, of Danbury, who described herself as a “proud daughter of undocumented immigrants.”

“It is my turn to preserve a privilege that should stay rightfully theirs,” she told the lawmakers. “If we claim on being a progressive state where all residents are valued, there should be no reason for this bill.”

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