Wed, May 23, 2018 06:08 AM
Wednesday, March 8, 2017 issue
2003-12-12 opinion
Driver's licenses for immigrants?
Guest commentary
By Roger E. Hernandez

Repealing the California law that would have allowed illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses was such a no-brainer that even the author of the measure, California state Sen. Gil Cedillo, joined fellow senators last week in a 33-0 vote to do away with his own law. Recently the state Assembly overwhelmingly agreed.

A driver's license is more than just a license to drive. Anyone can use it to open a bank account or board an airplane. And in the post-9/11 world, it should be unacceptable for "anyone" to be able to do such things.

Concerns about terrorists who dutifully respect the Internal Revenue Service was the main reason that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came out against the law which had itself only been passed in September during the gubernatorial campaign. He is expected to sign the bill that will repeal it.

But now comes the hard part.

Schwarzenegger, it seems, is not in principle against letting illegal immigrants get driver's licenses. He just wants it done in such a way that it will not compromise security. He has said that when the legislature comes back in session early next year, he and Cedillo will work on a new version of the bill to do just that.

And that has anti-immigrant activists up in arms, including those who backed the governor. To them, allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses is not only a national-security issue, it's also an immigration issue. They don't want illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.

In theory, people who are not supposed to be here should not get any kind of government permit to do anything. Yet reality has a habit of getting in the way of theory.

The reality is that there are some 2 million illegal immigrants in California. Some are recent arrivals; some are longtime residents. The vast majority are hard workers, some of whom need cars to get from home to their jobs. They are going to drive no matter what, license or no license.

Let me rephrase that: They are driving no matter what, license or no license. Nobody really knows how many illegal immigrants are driving California highways without licenses or insurance, but you can be sure that the number is not small.

In the absence of any significant effort by the government to either deport them or allow some sort of amnesty, it makes sense for them to be able to get that piece of paper that says they are capable drivers who have been trained and are being regulated. A license also encourages drivers to get auto insurance.

Allowing illegal immigrants to get their licenses is, in this respect, an issue of road safety; it should be seen as a temporary measure until the federal government finally decides to move on the overall problem of illegal immigration.

Of course, as Schwarzenegger and the California legislature even Cedillo have made clear, highway safety and immigration law are considerations secondary to national security. When lawmakers get together next year, they need to come up with a bill that allows illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses only under certain conditions.

A sensible law that recognizes the reality of illegal immigration and at the same time addresses national-security concerns could be a model for the rest of the country, a model that can stay in place until Congress and the White House finally find the guts to fix the illegal-immigration mess.

Cuban-born Roger Hernandez is a nationally syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

(c) 2003 King Features Syndicate Inc.

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