October 13, 2013

CALIFORNIA THIS MONTH became the latest state to allow immigrants who are in the United States illegally to obtain drivers’ licenses. It was a common-sense move that was supported not only by Latino activists, who hailed it as landmark reform, but also by law enforcement and insurance officials. Turn now to the District of Columbia, where a similar proposal by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has fallen prey to the botched thinking and goofy maneuvering of the D.C. Council.

It has been five months since Mr. Gray proposed legislation that would allow undocumented residents to get drivers’ licenses and insure and register vehicles, thus improving public safety and easing problems facing immigrants who are denied licenses. Mr. Gray’s proposal, like those of California and several other states, would make a distinction between the licenses given to undocumented immigrants and the ones issued to other drivers because of federal law setting rigid identification requirements for states and localities. Licenses given to undocumented immigrants could not, for example, be used for boarding flights or accessing federal programs.

Some D.C. Council members — notably those on the transportation and environment committee headed by Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) — didn’t think federal officials were serious about the yet-to-be implemented REAL ID law, which is designed to reduce fraud, or that it would apply to the District. Over the protests of Mr. Gray’s administration, they amended and won tentative approval of a bill that would issue drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants with no acknowledgment of their different status. Nevermind the risk that the federal government could respond by refusing to accept any licenses from the District as valid identification.

Ms. Cheh pulled the amended bill back from a final vote when the council reconvened this month; she told us her discussions with officials from the Department of Homeland Security convinced her that the council’s approach could indeed interfere with enforcement of REAL ID. She said she will be seeking changes when the bill comes up for a vote this week.

California officials estimate that 1.4 million drivers will apply for licenses under their law; the distinctions in the plastic handed out, as one state senate leader said, mean little to “hardworking people who simply want to be able to drive their kids to school or soccer practice without fear.” Mr. Gray’s proposal would lift burdens on an estimated 15,000 immigrants living in the District; it would require drivers to be tested and satisfy insurance requirements; and it would do so without creating legal uncertainty about the validity of licenses granted to legal residents. It’s time for the council to stop playing games and enact Mr. Gray’s measure.