In the recent debate over comprehensive immigration reform, the issue of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants has become a sideshow that observers will monitor until the bigger reform bill gets traction in Washington D.C. New laws in Illinois and Michigan are just two of the latest examples, and it would be no surprise if other states start following a similar pattern.
Proponents cite traffic safety, more insured drivers, and fewer people worried about possible deportation as reasons why passing such laws make sense. Critics feel these laws just lead to fraud and an influx of more undocumented immigrants. However, since driver’s licenses are yet another case of a law that belongs to the states, interpretations of what constitutes a fair law for undocumented immigrants are all over the map. Literally.
Take North Carolina, which last week passed a law permitting eligible Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) applicants to get driver’s license in the state. The problem? The proposed license will be very different from North Carolina’s actual license. The license issued to DACA individuals will be vertical instead of horizontal, fuschia at the top instead of blue, and just in case you weren’t sure, the words “NO LAWFUL STATUS” (in CAPITAL LETTERS) will be printed on the front, although it will say “legal presence” (in lowercase letters) on the back.
This is not exactly the type of format that will have DACA individuals happily running to the local Department of Transportation office on March 25, the first day these licenses can be issued. Anticipate problems for this one. I guarantee that by this summer we will see the first case of a North Carolina police officer harassing or targeting an individual because their license looks different. The modern-day “Scarlet Letter” is here, and they are being issued to North Carolina DREAMers.
On the other hand, Puerto Rico, the U.S.-territory-island-colony-but-not-really-a-state, will follow Illinois’ lead. This week during the commemoration of Luis Muñoz Marín’s birthday, Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro García Padilla announced that he will allow for undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses as well as prohibit hospitals and public schools from asking people about their immigration status. “My rights cannot be greater than your rights,” García Padilla said in Spanish. “There cannot be fundamental rights for some and not for others.”
The announcement was enthusiastically received by the island’s Dominican community, and when El Nuevo Día asked the Department of Homeland Security about García Padilla’s decision, specifically raising the concern that issuing licenses to the undocumented can be a national security issue, a DHS spokesperson basically said that they have no comment nor do they plan to comment about it in the future.
To many who see García Padilla’s actions as a push for social justice, such a move still raises a serious issue. You see, travel from Puerto Rico to the mainland United States only requires a valid driver’s license for anyone who lives in Puerto Rico, so you would think that some crafty individuals (and, yes, even some people who have bad ideas in their heads) already see this as an opportunity to take advantage of the loophole. Those who side on the issue of national security and border enforcement —Puerto Rico is a port of entry into the United States— can easily argue that García Padilla’s act would only lead to more undocumented immigrants coming into the country, both the good ones and the not so good ones.
And that is why this is all of a sudden getting complicated. Driver’s licenses shouldn’t be the determining factor in exhibiting someone’s immigration status. Just let people drive with a license, just like we let a tourist from England or France or Japan rent a car and use our roads. Then let’s move beyond the driver’s license sideshow and start to really tackle immigration reform. That is the only solution.
Julio Ricardo Varela (@julito77 ) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. In the past 12 months, Julito represented the Rebeldes on Face the Nation, NPR, Univision, Forbes, and The New York Times.