Illegal Aliens and Driver's Licenses

Has anyone heard of the Center for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Policy? They released a statement saying that not issuing driver’s licenses to illegal aliens is bad for security. Their analysis is good, and worth reading:

As part of the legislative compromise to pass the intelligence reform bill signed into law by the President today, the administration and Congressional leaders have promised to attach to the first ‘must pass’ legislation of the new year a controversial provision that was rightly dropped from the intelligence reform bill — this provision would effectively prevent the states from issuing driver’s licenses to illegal aliens by requiring ‘legal presence’ status for holders of licenses to be used as ‘national ID.’

Although this provision is being touted by its supporters as a security measure, its implementation in practice will be to undermine national security because it ignores three widely-recognized principles of counter-terrorism security: the shrinking perimeter of defense; the need to allocate resources to more likely targets; and the economics of fraud.

First, the very fact that 13 million illegal aliens are already within our borders means that a perimeter-based defense is porous. 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.

Recognizing the porous nature of perimeter defense does not mean that border security should not be improved or that additional steps to prevent illegal immigration should not be taken, however, not recognizing its porous nature is unrealistic, counter to current trends in security practice, and undermines national security. Rather than excluding 13 million people already within our borders, we should encourage non-terrorist illegal aliens to participate in internal security screening systems.

This leads to the second point. Contrary to the argument made by its supporters that denying illegal aliens licenses would prevent terrorists from ‘melting’ into society, this legislation would guarantee a larger haystack in which terrorists can hide thus making it more difficult for law enforcement to identify them. Counter-terrorism strategy is based on reducing the suspect population so that security resources can be focused on more likely suspects. 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?

Third, the proposed legislation would increase the incentives for fraud by greatly inflating the value of a driver’s license and by creating significant new demand for fraudulent licenses by making the driver’s license actual proof of citizenship or legal status. Arguments in support of the legislation are based in part on denying illegal aliens the de facto legitimacy that a driver’s license currently confers, yet the legislation would actually make such legitimacy a matter of law, thus increasing the demand for fraudulent licenses not only among those illegal aliens wishing to drive but among all 13 million who may now see it as a way to get jobs or otherwise prove their legitimate status.

If 13 million people living within our borders can’t drive, fly, travel on a train or bus, or otherwise participate in society without a driver’s license and they cannot get a legitimate one, then the market will supply them an illegal fraudulent one. State DMV bureaucracies, no matter how well- intentioned, do not have the resources, training, or skill to prevent fraud driven by this additional demand and no federal mandate will be able to prevent organized criminal elements from responding.

On the other hand, if illegal aliens are allowed to get legitimate licenses upon thorough vetting of their identity, then the only ones who will be trying to get fraudulent documents will be terrorists or criminals — who will face increased costs and more opportunities for mistakes if there is less overall demand — and law enforcement resources can be focused on these activities.

Fourteen states currently allow driver’s licenses to be obtained without showing ‘legal presence.’ These laws were enacted for public safety reasons — to ensure that drivers meet some standard to drive and to lower insurance premiums by decreasing the pool of unlicensed and uninsured drivers. In most cases, these laws were passed with the strong support of state law enforcement officials who recognized the advantages of being able to identify drivers and discourage unlicensed drivers from fleeing from minor traffic infractions or accidents because they were fearful of being caught without a license. The analogous arguments hold for national security — the more we can encourage otherwise law abiding people within our borders to participate in the system the easier it will be to identify those that pose a true threat.

There may be legitimate reasons for cracking down on illegal immigration, there may even be reasons to deny illegal aliens driver’s licenses, but counter-terrorism security is not one. This provision was appropriately dropped from the intelligence reform bill and it should not be resurrected in the 109th Congress.

Posted on January 4, 2005 at 8:00 AM

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.