Driving Immigrants Underground

Should undocumented immigrants have the right to obtain driver’s licenses or government-issued ID cards? This question often dominates the immigration debate at the local level.

States have the authority to follow their own guidelines for issuing driver’s licenses and ID cards that don’t have to preclude undocumented immigrants from obtaining them.

But exercising that right can prove politically toxic. The issue was a thorn on Gov. Gray Davis’ side when he was recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It also tripped up Hillary Clinton, who tried to avert New York’s debate on the issue when she sought to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 2008.

New Mexico is bringing the license question back into the spotlight. Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, has ordered the state’s Motor Vehicle Department to send letters to 10,000 random undocumented immigrants who have obtained state driver’s licenses to prove they still live in New Mexico. Martinez’s Tax and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla made a national security argument for this move:

“They’re leaving New Mexico with a government-issued ID, that gives them access to federal buildings and the ability to get on an airplane,” said Padilla.

Washington State recently revoked the license of Jose Antonio Vargas, who came out last month as an undocumented immigrant after a successful writing career in publications like The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and the Huffington Post. From the Seattle Times:

Brad Benfield, a Washington state Department of Licensing spokesman, said officials canceled the card earlier this week. It means that if Vargas’s license is checked by law enforcement or anyone else, he will show up as not having a license at all.

It’s not an uncommon step for the department to take.

Benfield said the department has canceled 187 licenses so far this year based on fraud that was discovered through use of facial-recognition technology. In most cases, the drivers had more than one record in the system.

What should undocumented immigrants do? States like New Mexico and Washington see a surge of applications by people without social security numbers precisely because immigrants travel there to seek opportunities not currently granted to them in their state of residence.

Immigration reform is a game of societal benefits and responsibilities. Driver’s licenses make immigrants more productive and can facilitate their integration into U.S. society. Taking away their driver’s licenses is unlikely to deter immigrants who need the mobility to work or drive their kids to school. It will, however, make it more likely for such immigrants to be captured and deported by the authorities if they roll by a stop sign or have a broken taillight.

As Eddie Garcia and Sandra Khalifa show at Campus Progress, the Obama administration deported almost 100,000 people between March and June. About 55 percent of the immigrants the government deportede weren’t criminals. More deportations break up families, and that’s bad for both the United States and the countries immigrants come from.

Most importantly, the worst way to make the immigration debate more constructive and more likely to lead to a rational shift in national policy is to dwell on issues like driver’s licenses. It doesn’t address the root causes of undocumented immigration and it simply makes it harder for entrepreneurial undocumented immigrants to get ahead.