Twelve states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, currently grant (or will soon grant) drivers’ licenses to unauthorized immigrants. An additional two—Arizona and Nebraska—explicitly grant licenses to immigrants brought to the United States as small children (“Dreamers”). This is a favorable trend, both for public safety and for liberty.
If you want an illustration of the public safety benefits from using drivers’ licenses solely for driving administration, give a read to this Voice of America article which illustrates clearly that illegal immigrants drive even when licensing is unavailable to them. Now that licensing is available, a California applicant who is not legally in this country must first prove residence. “He must also take an eye test to show he can see well, and a written test on driving rules. He must also take a driving test to show he can operate a motor vehicle.” Bringing all drivers up to such minimum standards undoubtedly improves safety outcomes.
For liberty, though, the shift back toward using driver licensing for driving is especially welcome. In 2005, amid a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment stoked by terror fears, Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which requires states to get proof of legal presence if their licenses and IDs are to be accepted by federal agencies. It appeared for a time as though states kowtowing to the federal government would help turn their driver’s licenses into an all-purpose federal tracking and control instrument, a national ID.
It has become increasingly clear that the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration will never follow through on the feds’ threat to turn away air travelers from states that don’t comply with REAL ID (though many are still taken in by DHS talking points). Some states are declining to implement REAL ID at all. Others are producing easy-to-acquire licenses that are labeled “not for federal purposes,” which REAL ID permits.
The states giving licenses to unauthorized immigrants today run the gamut from “liberal” to “conservative”: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware (effective December 2015), Hawaii (effective January 2016), Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont, and Washington. For varying reasons—and with varying levels of controversy—they’re re-asserting state authority over a state prerogative: driver licensing policy.
That’s good federalism. It’s good for road safety. And it’s especially good for keeping motor vehicle bureaucrats from being TSA agents and vice versa.