In the past month, six Washington legislators have introduced six different bills intended to prevent undocumented immigrants from obtaining a state driver's license or identity card. Pramila Jayapal, director of the advocacy group OneAmerica, helps explain why all six ideas are short-sighted and ill-conceived.
No matter how tall we build the border fence or how many guns-drawn, papers-please raids ICE conducts, thousands of people will still enter the country without visas. There is simply too much demand for labor--too much money to be made by both business owners and workers--to keep people from coming.
"You can do this enforcement and look like you're tough, but you're ignoring the real problem," says Jayapal. "All these things are fundamentally against the reality, which is we need workers. You don't see laid off bank workers or whatever, people affected by the economy, running to take farm-worker jobs."
And, like most Americans, these people need cars to get around. Ever been to Yakima? There's no light rail to the orchard. There's no bus that goes to the grocery store. If immigrants have to drive, why not have them take a test to prove they know the rules of the road? Why not enable them to get car insurance, so that both citizens and non-citizens are covered when there's an accident?
The sponsors of the new bills (SB 5006, HB 1577, SB 5335, SB 5338, SB 5333, and SB 5407) will say that Washington has become a destination for illegal immigrants because of its licensing policy. This is bunk. Yes, the Department of Licensing says they have issued 5.1 million licenses for a state with a total population of about 6.6 million. But the DOL now requires anyone who wants a license to prove their identity and prove they currently reside in Washington state.
Others will argue that a license entitles an illegal immigrant to all kinds of taxpayer-funded handouts. This is also bunk. As Jayapal points out, those immigrants buy the same car tabs that fund state programs, and they pay the same sales taxes and the same taxes on other consumer goods as everyone else.
"People make it seem like they're the cause of the collapse of whole economy," Jayapal says, "but they're a growing percentage of the workforce and they're all paying taxes, whether it's consumption tax, sales tax, or car tax. We're trying to draw more focus to helping the legislature remember that immigrants are huge part of the economy, whether it's picking fruit or the taxes they pay every day."
Jayapal says the politicians who are clamoring to sponsor the driver's-license bills are just "grandstanding," and ignoring the need for a real, practical solution to the immigration problem. If that argument sounds familiar, it's because Barack Obama said just about the exact same thing back in 2008 when he was Senator.
"We have to solve the overall problem and this driver's-license issue is a distraction," Obama said. "We have to have a comprehensive reform package and if we are doing what we need to do to control the borders, if we are doing what we need to do in cracking down on employers who are hiring undocumented workers and undermining U.S. workers then we shouldn't have a problem with driver's licenses because we will have legal workers here in this country as opposed to illegal ones."
So yeah, about that comprehensive reform package . . .