FIVE MONTHS AGO a Virginia law designed to restrict access to driver's licenses for illegal immigrants went into effect. Since then scams have multiplied. Last week, state officials announced they had invalidated more than 1,000 licenses that had been purchased illegally from two motor vehicle clerks in Tysons Corner. Not long ago, Spotsylvania County authorities also discovered a driver's license forgery ring. Other illegal immigrants have fallen victim to scams involving international driver's licenses or have purchased fake green cards and visas.
These are stories that should give Virginia lawmakers pause. After all, when new regulations were passed, they were meant to close loopholes that had allowed some of the Sept. 11 hijackers to obtain illegal driver's licenses in Virginia. Instead, the law may be creating a much larger secondary black market in identity documents. Given the large number of immigrants living in Virginia, given how integrated they are into the state's economy and given how much de facto encouragement they have received from Virginia employers to stay, this is hardly surprising: Like prohibition, this is a law that not only will be flouted; it also could create whole new spheres of criminal activity in the process.
True, Virginia is under no obligation to provide a driver's license, which is in effect a legal identity document, to illegal residents of the state: This is not an issue of legal or humanitarian "rights." But lawmakers ought to listen carefully to the law enforcement officers across the country who have lobbied state governments to make driver's licenses available to illegal immigrants. Those with licenses can get insurance, can be identified if arrested and will not be tempted to resort to forgery.
No one would deny that the presence of illegal immigrants does represent a failure at the federal level. But state officials should not have to pay for that failure in higher levels of lawlessness and crime. Virginia authorities should treat the current rules as an experiment and leave open the possibility of further changes.