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Issue Date:  January 14, 2005

Republicans line up on both sides of illegal immigrant drivers debate


What is normally a teenage rite of passage, getting a driver’s license, is shaping up to be the first volatile debate of the new Congress and a precursor to an even bigger fight over immigration reform.

The question of whether undocumented aliens should be denied driver’s licenses has been bandied about the 50 state legislatures for more than a decade. Most recently, the Arizona electorate voted overwhelmingly to ban the issuance of licenses to illegal aliens, though a federal judge enjoined state leaders from enforcing Proposition 200. The issue played a role in the recall of former California Gov. Gray Davis and is a matter of continuing controversy for his successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Last year, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush endorsed legislation that would have allowed illegal aliens to get driver’s licenses, though the bill died in the state legislature. Bush said it was a federal responsibility to prevent undocumented aliens from entering the country, but once they were in the United States, state officials had an obligation to ensure they were licensed.

At the state level, immigrant advocates, including state Catholic conference lobbyists and diocesan bishops, typically argue that licensing is vital to illegal aliens and their families. Without a license, say proponents of lenient standards, undocumented workers can’t get to and from work, risk having their vehicles impounded if they do drive without a license, lack car insurance (thus driving up rates and encouraging unlicensed drivers to flee the scene of an accident), and don’t possess the credentials necessary to establish a bank account or rent an apartment.

“Do you recognize that [undocumented] people are here, that they have family ties, that they are crucial to the U.S. economy, or do you say that they are not entitled to any kind of human rights once they get here?” asked Donald Kirwin, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.

Until 9/11 opponents of granting license privileges had one essential commonsense argument: The 13 million undocumented aliens in the United States should not be in the country in the first place. A driver’s license rewards lawless behavior, said those who want motor vehicle officials to demand proof of legal residence prior to issuing a license.

Sept. 11, however, changed the tone of the debate. What had been an intense if somewhat obscure back-and-forth over immigration policy became, at least in the view of those who would restrict licenses, a matter of national security, a new front in the war on terror.

Late last year, House Republicans nearly derailed the intelligence overhaul legislation sought by a majority of Democrats, President Bush and the 9/11 Commission. The final legislation, unlike the measure originally approved by the House, did not contain a provision banning state motor vehicle departments from issuing licenses to those in the country illegally.

House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., led the charge. The legislation, said the 14-term congressman, “practically invites terrorists to come into our country and apply for these crucial identification documents.” He called failure to restrict licenses “a recipe for disaster -- the same kind of disaster that happened on 9/11.” Sensenbrenner and others noted that each of the Sept. 11 hijackers possessed a valid license.

As part of a compromise to get the intelligence bill passed, White House officials reportedly agreed to support inclusion of driver’s license restrictions as part of the first “must pass” legislation of the new Congress. Last week, Judiciary Committee staff were “fine-tuning language in the legislation,” which Sensenbrenner planned to introduce in early January, committee spokesperson Terry Shawn told NCR.

It is sure to be a heated discussion.

“Sensenbrenner’s basically been lying for the past month,” said Michelle Waslin, director of immigration policy research at the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic advocacy group. “When he says that his provision would have prevented the terrorists from getting licenses that’s an outright lie,” said Waslin, who noted that the 9/11 hijackers either came into the country legally -- and thus had visas that would have permitted them to secure licenses -- or had forged documents.

The push to deny illegal aliens driver’s licenses, said Waslin, is not about security, but “comes right out of the immigrant restriction playbook” with terrorism being “used as a pretext” to enact anti-immigrant measures.

Moreover, say opponents of driver’s license restrictions, when it comes to national security and road safety, it is preferable to have undocumented workers in the system than outside of it.

“The proposed policy would eliminate another opportunity to screen this large pool of people and to separate ‘otherwise law-abiding’ illegal aliens from terrorists or criminals by confirming identity when licenses are issued or when such licenses are presented or used for identity screening at checkpoints,” Kim Taipale, executive director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Policy, and director of the Program on Law Enforcement and National Security in the Information Age, told an antiterrorism conference in December.

Further, said Taipale, “denying identity legitimacy to 13 million illegal aliens -- the vast majority of whom are not terrorists or otherwise threats to national security -- just increases the size of the suspect pool for law enforcement to have to sort through. Since law enforcement resources are already unable to effectively cope with the large illegal alien population, why further complicate their task?”

The driver’s license debate, meanwhile, offers a taste of what is to come when Congress considers wholesale revisions to U.S. immigration law. Last year President Bush outlined a proposal that would grant legal status to millions of undocumented aliens, though the administration has yet to provide details or draft legislation. A host of legislators, including Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., are preparing initiatives along the lines proposed by the president.

It’s an issue likely to divide the Congress along many lines. Not least among them will be the split between anti-immigration conservatives vs. pro-business Republicans, the latter inclined to favor measures that guarantee a cheap labor supply for jobs Americans don’t want.

“It is a critical question for Republicans,” said Angie Kelly, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum. “There are very loud voices in the House that are rabid restrictionists” while others are “reform-minded and pro-immigrant.”

Further, noted Kelly, President Bush received more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in the 2004 election, a record for a Republican presidential candidate. “They may see this as a way of consolidating some of the gains they saw,” said Kelly.

“The Republican Party is very much split on the issue,” agreed Waslin. “It’s going to be a very interesting year.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2005

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