Giving Drivers Licenses to Illegal Immigrants

Many people say that allowing illegal aliens to obtain state driver’s licenses helps them and encourages them to remain illegally in this country. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox late last year issued an opinion that licenses could be issued only to legal state residents, calling it “one more tool in our initiative to bolster Michigan’s border and document security.”

In reality, we are a much more secure nation if we do issue driver’s licenses and/or state IDs to every resident who applies, regardless of immigration status. Issuing them doesn’t make us any less secure, and refusing puts us at risk.

The state driver’s license databases are the only comprehensive databases of U.S. residents. They’re more complete, and contain more information – including photographs and, in some cases, fingerprints – than the IRS database, the Social Security database, or state birth certificate databases. As such, they are an invaluable police tool – for investigating crimes, tracking down suspects, and proving guilt.

Removing the 8 million-15 million illegal immigrants from these databases would only make law enforcement harder. Of course, the unlicensed won’t pack up and leave. They will drive without licenses, increasing insurance premiums for everyone. They will use fake IDs, buy real IDs from crooked DMV employees – as several of the 9/11 terrorists did – forge “breeder documents” to get real IDs (another 9/11 terrorist trick), or resort to identity theft. These millions of people will continue to live and work in this country, invisible to any government database and therefore the police.

Assuming that denying licenses to illegals will make them leave is head-in-the-sand thinking.

Of course, even an attempt to deny licenses to illegal immigrants puts DMV clerks in the impossible position of verifying immigration status. This is expensive and time-consuming; furthermore, it won’t work. The law is complicated, and it can take hours to verify someone’s status only to get it wrong. Paperwork can be easy to forge, far easier than driver’s licenses, meaning many illegal immigrants will get these licenses that now “prove” immigrant status.

Even more legal immigrants will be mistakenly denied licenses, resulting in lawsuits and additional government expense.

Some states have considered a tiered license system, one that explicitly lists immigration status on the licenses. Of course, this won’t work either. Illegal immigrants are far more likely to take their chances being caught than admit their immigration status to the DMV.

We are all safer if everyone in society trusts and respects law enforcement. A society where illegal immigrants are afraid to talk to police because of fear of deportation is a society where fewer people come forward to report crimes, aid police investigations, and testify as witnesses.

And finally, denying driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants will not protect us from terrorism. Contrary to popular belief, a driver’s license is not required to board a plane. You can use any government-issued photo ID, including a foreign passport. And if you’re willing to undergo secondary screening, you can board a plane without an ID at all. This is probably how anybody on the “no fly” list gets around these days.

A 2003 American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators report concludes: “Digital images from driver’s licenses have significantly aided law enforcement agencies charged with homeland security. The 19 (9/11) terrorists obtained driver licenses from several states, and federal authorities relied heavily on these images for the identification of the individuals responsible.”

Whether it’s the DHS trying to protect the nation from terrorism, or local, state and national law enforcement trying to protect the nation from crime, we are all safer if we encourage every adult in America to get a driver’s license.

This op ed originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press.

Posted on February 13, 2008 at 5:57 AM

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.