Posturing and Driver's Licenses

Sunday, November 18, 2007

LISTEN TO the fumblings and bumblings of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, two otherwise canny and articulate senators, and you can hear a pair of candidates who probably know that granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants is smart public policy but maybe not such smart politics. Both Mr. Obama, who supports the idea, and Ms. Clinton, who now says she does not, have come in for derision by seeming to straddle an issue that is becoming a surrogate for the broader, unresolved problem of illegal immigration.

Eight states already grant licenses to undocumented residents, from Washington and Utah in the West to Maine and Maryland in the East. All adopted the stance for clear and convincing reasons of public safety and in many cases at least partly at the behest of law enforcement officials. None has come to tragedy because of it.

At least 12 million illegal immigrants live in America, and many of them, probably millions, are already driving regularly or periodically. They drive to jobs, to schools, to hospitals, to shopping malls and to grocery stores. By making licenses available to them, states are not enabling them to drive more; they are encouraging them to get the insurance and training that will allow them to drive safely. Deny them licenses, and be prepared to pay the consequences.

A report prepared for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety gives a sobering assessment of those consequences. The report, based on data collected in the 1990s, says that unlicensed drivers are almost five times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than drivers with valid licenses and that 20 percent of all fatal accidents involve at least one driver without a valid license. Such drivers are also more likely to operate vehicles under the influence of alcohol.

While the Democratic front-runners have equivocated, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who signed legislation allowing illegal immigrants to be licensed four years ago, was lucid about his reasons. Speaking at the Democratic forum held Thursday in Las Vegas, Mr. Richardson, who may feel that he has less to lose by his honesty than the equivocating Democratic front-runners, put the matter succinctly: "When we started with this program, 33 percent of all New Mexicans were uninsured. Today it's 11 percent. Traffic fatalities have gone down. It's a matter of public safety."

That was also the logic that led Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York to announce in September that driver's licenses would be issued without regard to immigration status. He withdrew the plan last week following a firestorm of political protest, not least from the state's Democratic congressional delegation. It was notable that many of those who urged the governor to reverse course did so not because they thought the policy was foolish but because they worried about an electoral backlash.

Polls show that a majority of Americans believe issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants is a bad idea. Many fear that it will tempt more immigrants to enter this country illegally. That's hokum; people who sneak into the country or overstay their visas do so for jobs, not licenses.

A more serious concern is that granting licenses to illegal immigrants may give would-be terrorists a tool they would otherwise lack and that the licenses could be used to gain access to commercial flights. That could be addressed by making driver's licenses valid only for driving, not as all-purpose identity documents, and by creating for other purposes a separate national ID card, with stringent biometric and other safeguards -- much as European and other countries already have. Doing so would mean rethinking the federal Real ID Act, which requires states to adopt heavily vetted driver's licenses that would serve as all-purpose IDs. But with many states already balking at Real ID's onerous provisions, a rethink is in order anyway.

Rhetoric and reality already diverge on many aspects of the debate over illegal immigrants. Now driver's licenses are providing easy fodder for elected officials to prove their toughness and intolerance on the issue. By doing so, they ignore the everyday reality of safety on the nation's roadways. Illegal immigrants will continue to drive regardless of posturing by politicians. The important question is whether they will do so safely.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company