License to Drive

Why denying undocumented immigrants IDs is a bad idea.

In the past month, six Washington legislators have introduced six different bills intended to prevent undocumented immigrants from obtaining a state driver's license or identity card. Pramila Jayapal, director of the advocacy group OneAmerica, says all six ideas are shortsighted and ill-conceived. Here's why. Washington is just the third remaining state (the others are New Mexico and Utah) that allows non-citizens to legally drive. Until the post-9/11 wave of xenophobia, virtually every other state did business the same way, and for one very, very good reason: Immigrants are going to drive whether they are licensed or not. No matter how tall we build the border fence or how many guns-drawn, papers-please raids ICE conducts, thousands of people will still enter the country without visas. There is simply too much demand for labor—too much money to be made by both business owners and workers—to keep people from coming. "You can do this enforcement and look like you're tough, but you're ignoring the real problem," says Jayapal. "All these things are fundamentally against the reality, which is we need workers. You don't see laid-off bank workers or whatever, people affected by the economy, running to take farmworker jobs." And, like most Americans, these people need cars to get around. Ever been to Yakima? There's no light rail to the orchard. There's no bus that goes to the grocery store. If immigrants have to drive, why not have them take a test to prove they know the rules of the road? Why not enable them to get car insurance, so that both citizens and noncitizens are covered when there's an accident? The sponsors of the new bills will say that Washington has become a destination for illegal immigrants because of its licensing policy. This is bunk. Yes, the Department of Licensing says it has issued 5.1 million licenses for a state with a total population of about 6.6 million. But the DOL now requires anyone who wants a license to prove their identity and prove they currently reside in Washington state. Others will argue that a license entitles an illegal immigrant to all kinds of taxpayer-funded handouts. This is also bunk. As Jayapal points out, those immigrants buy the same car tabs that fund state programs, and they pay the same sales taxes and the same taxes on other consumer goods as everyone else. "People make it seem like they're the cause of the collapse of the whole economy," says Jayapal, "but they're a growing percentage of the workforce and they're all paying taxes, whether it's consumption tax, sales tax, or car tax. We're trying to draw more focus to helping the legislature remember that immigrants are a huge part of the economy, whether it's picking fruit or the taxes they pay every day." Jayapal says the politicians who are clamoring to sponsor the driver's-license bills are just "grandstanding," and ignoring the need for a real, practical solution to the immigration problem. If that argument sounds familiar, it's because Barack Obama said just about the same thing back in 2008 when he was only a senator. "We have to solve the overall problem, and this driver's-license issue is a distraction," said Obama. "We have to have a comprehensive reform package, and if we are doing what we need to do to control the borders, if we are doing what we need to do in cracking down on employers who are hiring undocumented workers and undermining U.S. workers, then we shouldn't have a problem with driver's licenses because we will have legal workers here in this country as opposed to illegal ones."

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