McKenna's Immigration 'Sweet Spot' Falls Flat

A plan for undocumented workers on the road could be unpopular on both sides of the aisle.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna is wooing Hispanics as best he can. The state attorney general made his opening remarks at last week's debate in Yakima in Spanish, something opponent Jay Inslee didn't attempt. And he gave a surprising answer when asked whether the state should require proof of legal residency before granting driver's licenses.

While he said the state should require such proof, in line with Republican attempts to crack down on illegal immigration, he also said he supports the idea of offering "some kind of other document that lets you drive." It's an interesting notion that seems aimed at staking out a middle ground on immigration.

Unfortunately, McKenna's campaign did not make the candidate or anyone else available to talk about what kind of document that would be and how it would work. But it's not an entirely new idea. In 2005, Utah created a "driver privilege card" that is distinct from a license and cannot be used as identification.

The card has repeatedly come under attack by those who believe it's making Utah a magnet for illegal immigration. When a Republican legislator sponsored a bill to repeal the policy this spring (in the end, unsuccessfully), The Salt Lake Tribune stuck up for it. Dismissing the magnet theory, the paper said of the card: "It makes the state's roads and highways safer by encouraging people to pass the driver tests. It familiarizes people from other nations with the rules of the road. It also enables them to buy insurance." The Tribune also mused that the "driver privilege cards make life a bit more normal for illegal aliens. They may not fear traffic stops as much, for example."

But the idea may not appeal to Hispanics or immigrant advocates as much as McKenna may hope. Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, tells SW that his organization is opposed to a "two-tier system." He says he believes that many immigrants would not seek a permit "that would essentially brand them as being undocumented." This would lead to a lot more unpermitted and uninsured drivers on the road, which he says would be "bad for everyone."

It's worth noting, however, that Utah's experience suggests that thousands could opt into such a system. According to the Tribune, a 2008 audit recorded that 35,000 drivers had obtained privilege cards in the first three years they had been offered.

Barón has another objection, though: "This proposal would still require the Department of Licensing to be in the business of figuring out people's immigration status in order to determine which kind of license/permit they could have. This is going to create problems for everybody in the community (since we will all have to establish our citizenship), but would also impact in a disproportionate way immigrant and refugee communities, even for those members who have lawful status: We frequently see agencies at all levels not understanding immigration status issues, and therefore rejecting applicants incorrectly."

Given our nation's byzantine immigration laws, it's a fair point. McKenna might not yet have hit the sweet spot on immigration policy he's looking for.

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