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Should Illegal Immigrants Get Driver’s Licenses?

Matt Yglesias notes that the Democratic presidential aspirants are having a difficult time answering the seemingly straightforward question, “Should illegal immigrants get driver’s licenses?”

The problem with saying “yes” isn’t just that it’s unpopular, it’s that it’s unpopular because it sounds ridiculous.

Quite right. I understand the argument that we’ve got millions of illegal aliens in the country driving now sans license and that, since we’re unlikely to take the steps to end that situation, we might as well do what we can to have them at least break the law safely. Still, the idea that we’re going to have people who are violating our laws by simply being here line up in a government building to get issued a license that makes it even harder to enforce said laws is mind boggling.

In the early 1980s, when the AIDS scare was at its height and long before the treatment protocols that now make allow people to leave indefinitely with the disease, there was a spirited debate about teaching safe sex practices in schools, advertising condoms on television, and so forth. Bill Buckley made the interesting analogy that we would not teach our children that burglary was immoral but that, were they to decide to break into people’s homes despite that fact, they should be all means where gloves so as to minimize the chances of getting caught. Ultimately, though, Buckley’s side lost that argument because we rightly calculated that teenagers (and single adults, for that matter) were going to have sex regardless and that the public health consequences of that trumped the moral values concerns.

In this case, though, it’s unlikely the “safety first” argument will prevail. While teenagers could engage in unsafe sex without their parents’ permission, illegal aliens can’t get state-sanctioned drivers’ licenses without the active cooperation of the state. Having the state turning a blind eye to illegality in order to achieve a theoretical increase in public safety is a hard sell.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    Of course, if we had a rational and decent immigration policy, none of these types of ridiculous debates would be necessary. As Yglesias notes in the same post, we also need to create easy paths to citizenship, raise the ceiling on legal immigration, and enforce immigration law in places where it actually makes sense to do so.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  2. Anderson says:

    Because I haven’t followed the issue, I have no idea what the alleged *gain* in safety is from the proposal.

    Are we supposed to think that immigrants will drive more safely with a license than without one? I would expect the reverse: don’t get pulled over, b/c you’ll have no license, you’ll go to jail, and you’ll end up being deported!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  3. James Joyner says:

    As Yglesias notes in the same post, we also need to create easy paths to citizenship, raise the ceiling on legal immigration, and enforce immigration law in places where it actually makes sense to do so.

    I agree in theory but that’s not where the public is at the moment.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    I have no idea what the alleged *gain* in safety is from the proposal.

    Presumably, they’d be forced to learn our laws and so forth. Otherwise, what’s the point of DLs for any of us?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  5. Triumph says:

    Sure they should be given drivers licenses–as long as they are ony good for one-way travel back to their land of origin.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  6. Anderson says:

    Presumably, they’d be forced to learn our laws and so forth.

    Doesn’t seem to be working, from my time on the road.

    Otherwise, what’s the point of DLs for any of us?

    Well, if the cop gives you a ticket but never sees your ID, then how does he prove it was you in the car?

    State control is the # 1 reason for DL’s; safety is just a fig leaf.

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  7. Anon says:

    I agree that having the state ignore obviously illegality seems wrong, but the system is already so wacky that giving them licenses seems pretty incremental. I guess I’m of the crowd that says if we can’t fix the system somehow so that there are no illegals, then we should at least do the best we can to control and track them.

    Personally, I think we are missing out on a great opportunity. We should create a guest worker program with a path towards citizenship, but at the same time require guest workers to pass English proficiency exams. Guest workers can fully participate in our economy, but can’t vote.

    Workers should be admitted based on such factors as IQ and expertise. The ideal is that we want to steal the world’s best and brightest in all areas.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. Still, the idea that we’re going to have people who are violating our laws by simply being here line up in a government building to get issued a license that makes it even harder to enforce said laws is mind boggling.

    Funny. I had almost the exact same thought this morning.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  9. Tano says:

    “Having the state turning a blind eye to illegality in order to achieve a theoretical increase in public safety is a hard sell.”

    But isn’t that a central tenet of the WoT?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  10. Christopher says:

    Why don’t we TELL them that we will give them one and then when they come to the DMV we send em back!

    lol

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  11. Paul says:

    Re Anderson’s first comment, I think only people who break certain non-immigration laws get “deported” and only after a deportation proceeding; people who are undocumented just get sent home. The relevance is that if you are deported and come back that is a felony that can land you in federal prison, whereas if you get sent home and come back you just get sent home again( … and again … and again.) I am not saying this distinction makes sense, just an FYI.

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  12. LaurenceB says:

    The strongest argument for providing illegals with a license is simply that if they don’t have licenses they can’t buy insurance, and therefore, are very likely to drive uninsured.

    I understand the inherent “ridiculousness”, as Yglesias puts it, but I think in this case practicality trumps principle.

    On a philosophical note, this is one more instance of the phenomenon wherein certain folks criticize the behavior of illegals in a particular way (They drive without insurance!), while simultaneously advocated policy that encourages that very behavior. There are many, many other such instances.

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  13. teqjack says:

    Allow me to echo the derision about “Having lots of people driving around without licenses, meanwhile, seems to be a problem for road safety and law enforcement.”

    Not having a license is only a problem for law enforcement because it means that if stopped an unlicensed driver will probably require more writing (added violations) or even need to be taken in – and probably the vehicle too, at that point.

    As to safety, I’ve encountered drivers who are very unsafe despite licensing, registering, insurance… Heck, I’ve been beeped at and yelled at for going the wrong way – by a driver who was going the wrong way but seems not to have noticed the red signs with white letters saying so…

    In the comments over there, I noticed “Giving illegal aliens a drivers license allows them to get car insurance. That means that if they have an accident, their victim can be recompensed.” Huh? You do NOT need a driver’s license to insure a vehicle anywhere that I know of (at least four states by personal experience) – the vehicle is insured [usually: it is possible, but rare, to insure your license separately] albeit New York is not one I know personally (can’t you insure a farm tractor cheaply with a clause it is only valid on your property?). Nor do you need to prove residency, although if you do not the company will probably assume you live in the area with the highest rates.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. Orman says:

    Let me get this straight.

    People who are willing to enter this country in violation of our laws, who stay in this country in violation of our laws are unwilling to drive in violation of our laws? I think the participation is going to being almost non-existent.

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  15. frank says:

    “State control is the # 1 reason for DL’s”

    Agree. However, what is the justification for state control?. I can’t think of a better reason than public safety. Abuse of state power might make safety a leaf. Nevertheless, if safety wasn’t an overwhelmingly great reason to accept state control the current system would ‘ve been overthrown long ago.

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  16. floyd says:

    If you can come illegally into the state from Mexico and get a drivers license, then why can’t you come as an American from your state of legal residence to get a license in each of the fifty states without having legal residence there.

    LET’S SEE…. You should be able to get something like 150 moving violations before you run out of licenses and by then the first ones would be reinstated.WOW!Talk about PRIVILEGE!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. Dodd says:

    Personally, I’m less concerned about the government turning a blind eye to illegality part than I am to the vote fraud aspect, since so many states have gone to motor voter.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. mannning says:

    The first problem is that we have lost control of border jumpers that appear in every state.

    Illegals will not willingly obey the law to get a license, fearing deportation as well as having contempt for our laws by definition. False DLs are common to them anyway.

    To give a license to an Illegal is to compound the problem immeasurably, unless the license clearly shows that it is issued to an illegal, which means they would have to identify themselves: this they won’t do.

    So, what to do?

    Spend money in the right ways to solve the problem.

    Announce clearly and often that we will start a dragnet to find and deport or jail Illegals everywhere in the US. The announcement itself would solve much of the problem, so long as it is enforced sufficiently for all to see.

    Announce everywhere that we will prosecute those who hire Illegals, starting with the biggest offenders. Follow up on this effectively.

    Use all of our law enforcement resources to identify those who do not have valid IDs and work permits, haul them in, charge them with violation of our laws, fingerprint them, photograph them, and turn them over to the INS for out-processing.
    (The no-beds excuse is a sham: we can refit old army bases as temporary shelters until most are sent home. Remember that we housed, fed, gave medical support, transported all over the world, and clothed over 10 million servicemen in WWII, which lasted 4 or so years. Spend money!)

    Second offenders go to jail and are deported after that. Build jails or other facilities to house them.

    Within a few years of using this approach, we would have solved much of the problem. Border controls, fences, and enough personnel on the borders would solve most of the influx problem.

    Meanwhile, a migrant worker program with strict controls should be instituted, and should directly involve local law enforcement.

    Legal immigration limits should be raised where it is in the interest of the nation.

    But, there should be no driver’s licenses for Illegals! That would become rather unnecessary.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  19. Grewgills says:

    …Spend money in the right ways to solve the problem…

    manning,
    I take it from your above comment that you are not a small government conservative. Your argument seems to say that if the people see a problem that they think is large and important enough then they should empower government to solve that problem regardless of the expense or expansion of government power and influence in the daily lives of citizens. Am I misreading you?

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  20. mannning says:

    The larger answer is yes, you are misreading me. The smaller answer is that when you are in the dill, you have to spend some money to get the hell out.

    We can all think of catastrophic times and events that caused us to open the purse and spend. WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Katrina, the tsunami in Indonesia, etc. that were extremely costly, but characteristically time or event-limited in some way, after which, we went back to business as usual–and supposedly smaller government(or should have!). Even Iraq will be considerably limited in the end, although it may take a new presidency to alter a few policies.

    The next problem is, of course, a new Democratic presidency, which would automatically open the purse-strings, IMO, for increased spending on their favorite entitlement programs, while still carrying the burdens passed on to them from previous administrations–including Iraq and the GWOT.

    My suggestion for the Illegals problem is supposed to last till we can declare ourselves adequately free of Illegals, both in the US and in trying to get here. I would give it 4 to 5 years, after which we can close down the large logistics aspects I proposed: bases, feeding, transportation, etc., that is driven by the huge numbers of Illegals to be processed out.

    The difference between this type of “dill” drill and that of, say, universal health care, is that it is not a permanent entitlement spending program that mortgages our taxpayers forever, and creates a lasting bureaucracy of gigantic proportions. Problem solved; tax money stops (for the most part!), and the organization reverts to “normal”. No huge bureaucracy would be remaining, it says here.

    You can see that this happens by surveying the closed bases of the military, and their reduced numbers of troops after Vietnam. Cuts of up to 30-40% were made to achieve a “peace dividend”, which has come to haunt us to this very day, but it actually happened on Clinton’s watch–rightly or wrongly. (a shudder here–it may happen again!)

    Generally, I am not in favor of socialization of anything, including Social Security, and I will most likely not live long enough to recover what I put into that system. So it is a net tax on me that I have already paid. (Benefits creep has destroyed the fiscal integrity of SS, but that is another problem entirely.)

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