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Letting illegal immigrants get driver's licenses makes sense

Having illegal immigrants apply for driver's licenses ensures they will be tested, making them safer drivers and more likely to be insured.

September 05, 2012|Michael Hiltzik
  • A California bill to make at least some undocumented immigrants eligible for licenses won passage in the legislature last month and awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. Above, a line forms inside the DMV office in South Los Angeles last month.
A California bill to make at least some undocumented immigrants eligible… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

The debate over whether to offer driver's licenses to illegal immigrants has a usefully neurological angle: It's a way of defining "insanity" as the process of shooting yourself in the foot in the expectation that someone else will scream in pain.

The people who are supposedly afflicted with the pain are undocumented immigrants, who are theoretically deprived of the right to drive on our roads. The injury inflicted on society arises from the fact that many of the supposed targets of this punishment drive anyway. They just do so without training, without testing and without insurance.

Does this sound rational to you? If so, here's your straitjacket.

"For 60 years, California had the safest highways in the country," observes Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles). "Then we started playing immigration politics with highway safety, and our highways got a lot less safe."

Cedillo has been trying to restore driving license rights for illegal immigrants since 1998, when he joined the state legislature. At this moment he has his fingers crossed, for at least the ninth time in his career, that California might be chipping away at the roadblocks. His latest bill to make at least some undocumented immigrants eligible for licenses won passage in the legislature last month and awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature.

That would move California closer to the policies of three other states: New Mexico and Washington allow illegal immigrants to apply for licenses, and Utah allows them to apply for driving permits that don't count as government IDs. A proposal to add Colorado to that list may be on the state's ballot this November.

Cedillo argues that when California barred undocumented immigrants from applying for licenses nearly 20 years ago, driving in the state not only got less safe, but more expensive. Undocumented immigrants constitute a sizable proportion of unlicensed drivers (no one seems to be sure how sizable) and therefore of uninsured drivers, too.

Who pays for that? You do, through the portion of your insurance premium applied to unlicensed motorist coverage. In my policy that's at least 10%.

The debate over allowing illegal immigrants to apply for licenses shows how hypocrisy and irrationality still infect our thinking on immigration (and its tenuous connection with traffic enforcement). Almost every Californian knows the facts about the sizable role illegal immigrants play in our economy, including the fact that they're not going away. The business community generally stays silent on immigration issues, possibly because they know that any truly effective battle against illegal immigration involves lowering the boom on the employers.

But by denying these workers the right to apply for driver's licenses, we're saying it's all right for them to clean our homes, care for our children and pick our crops; we just draw the line at allowing them the right to drive to get there. (And we'll pay higher insurance premiums into the bargain.)

Some opponents of expanding the pool of licensed drivers argue that there's scant evidence that illegal immigrants driving illegally contribute unduly to highway carnage, so why give them a break? Yet while it's true that there are few empirical studies of the matter, one of those, a 1997 DMV survey, found that unlicensed drivers were overrepresented in fatal crashes by a ratio of 5 to 1, based on their prevalence in the driving population. Even if you can't put your finger on the prevalence of unlicensed immigrants behind the wheel, it's obvious that the percentage of them carrying valid auto insurance is, give or take a few billionths of a point, zero.

It's a rare police officer who relishes having more unlicensed drivers on his beat. "Why wouldn't you want to put people through a rigorous testing process?" L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck remarked earlier this year.

And then-Sen. Barack H. Obama, in a televised debate among Democrats during the run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign, called granting illegal immigrants the right to licenses "the right idea" so that those drivers could "come out of the shadows, that they can be tracked, that they are properly trained, and that will make our roads safer."

Cedillo's bill would apply to people qualified for President Obama's "deferred action" program, which temporarily suspends immigration enforcement for those brought into the country illegally before their 16th birthday. Eligible persons must be in school or have completed high school or have served honorably in the armed forces, and not have a criminal record. The program allows them to obtain a Social Security number and legally look for work; Cedillo's bill would allow them to get a California driver's license, too. As many as 500,000 California residents might qualify, he says.

That would be progress, but incomplete progress, since as many as 2 million undocumented immigrants may be driving in California.

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