The debate over whether to offer driver's licenses to illegal immigrants has a usefully neurological angle: It's a way of defining "insanity" as the process of shooting yourself in the foot in the expectation that someone else will scream in pain.
The people who are supposedly afflicted with the pain are undocumented immigrants, who are theoretically deprived of the right to drive on our roads. The injury inflicted on society arises from the fact that many of the supposed targets of this punishment drive anyway. They just do so without training, without testing and without insurance.
Does this sound rational to you? If so, here's your straitjacket.
"For 60 years, California had the safest highways in the country," observes Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles). "Then we started playing immigration politics with highway safety, and our highways got a lot less safe."
Cedillo has been trying to restore driving license rights for illegal immigrants since 1998, when he joined the state legislature. At this moment he has his fingers crossed, for at least the ninth time in his career, that California might be chipping away at the roadblocks. His latest bill to make at least some undocumented immigrants eligible for licenses won passage in the legislature last month and awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature.
That would move California closer to the policies of three other states: New Mexico and Washington allow illegal immigrants to apply for licenses, and Utah allows them to apply for driving permits that don't count as government IDs. A proposal to add Colorado to that list may be on the state's ballot this November.
Cedillo argues that when California barred undocumented immigrants from applying for licenses nearly 20 years ago, driving in the state not only got less safe, but more expensive. Undocumented immigrants constitute a sizable proportion of unlicensed drivers (no one seems to be sure how sizable) and therefore of uninsured drivers, too.
Who pays for that? You do, through the portion of your insurance premium applied to unlicensed motorist coverage. In my policy that's at least 10%.
The debate over allowing illegal immigrants to apply for licenses shows how hypocrisy and irrationality still infect our thinking on immigration (and its tenuous connection with traffic enforcement). Almost every Californian knows the facts about the sizable role illegal immigrants play in our economy, including the fact that they're not going away. The business community generally stays silent on immigration issues, possibly because they know that any truly effective battle against illegal immigration involves lowering the boom on the employers.
But by denying these workers the right to apply for driver's licenses, we're saying it's all right for them to clean our homes, care for our children and pick our crops; we just draw the line at allowing them the right to drive to get there. (And we'll pay higher insurance premiums into the bargain.)
Some opponents of expanding the pool of licensed drivers argue that there's scant evidence that illegal immigrants driving illegally contribute unduly to highway carnage, so why give them a break? Yet while it's true that there are few empirical studies of the matter, one of those, a 1997 DMV survey, found that unlicensed drivers were overrepresented in fatal crashes by a ratio of 5 to 1, based on their prevalence in the driving population. Even if you can't put your finger on the prevalence of unlicensed immigrants behind the wheel, it's obvious that the percentage of them carrying valid auto insurance is, give or take a few billionths of a point, zero.
It's a rare police officer who relishes having more unlicensed drivers on his beat. "Why wouldn't you want to put people through a rigorous testing process?" L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck remarked earlier this year.
And then-Sen. Barack H. Obama, in a televised debate among Democrats during the run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign, called granting illegal immigrants the right to licenses "the right idea" so that those drivers could "come out of the shadows, that they can be tracked, that they are properly trained, and that will make our roads safer."
Cedillo's bill would apply to people qualified for President Obama's "deferred action" program, which temporarily suspends immigration enforcement for those brought into the country illegally before their 16th birthday. Eligible persons must be in school or have completed high school or have served honorably in the armed forces, and not have a criminal record. The program allows them to obtain a Social Security number and legally look for work; Cedillo's bill would allow them to get a California driver's license, too. As many as 500,000 California residents might qualify, he says.
That would be progress, but incomplete progress, since as many as 2 million undocumented immigrants may be driving in California.
A driver's license should have one purpose only: to certify that holders have been trained to safely operate a vehicle and observe traffic regulations. Under the circumstances, the state's interest lies in imposing the fewest and only the most pertinent obstacles to reaching that point. Proof of age and identity, yes. Proof of state residence, sure. Pass the driving test, you bet. But pretty much any other prerequisite interferes with job one.
Yet rules such as the requirement to prove legal residence in the U.S. have been piled on, especially post-9/11. It's not as though DMV offices in any state are rock-solid bulwarks against fraudulent claims of immigration or residence status. The California DMV lists 28 documents that applicants can submit to validate their birth dates and legal presence, including birth certificates and U.S. entry stamps in foreign passports. Some are harder to fake than others, but none is immune to forgery by a determined individual.
The evolution of the driver's license into a de-facto government ID card seems to have happened without anyone thinking too hard about its implications. Wherever did the idea come from that showing a driver's license at the airport is a magical talisman preventing people with irregular immigrant status, not to mention evil intentions, from boarding a plane? In reality, the picture license proves only two things: that the person whose picture is on the card has the same face as the person handing it over, and that the name on the license is the same as the name on the boarding pass.
It's that evolution, however, that underlies the absurd notion that a driver's license is a "privilege" not to be granted to undocumented immigrants. Obtaining a driver's license is no more a privilege than is paying taxes; it's a duty, required of anyone who wishes to operate a motor vehicle on public roads. People forget that because the debate is often worded as though it's about "giving" immigrants licenses. No, it's about allowing them to apply for a license and submit to a test before obtaining one. (Ask the average 16-year-old if he or she considers the road test to be a "privilege.")
Thanks to these developments, the lowly driver's license reigns today as our most overinflated political football. The issue is a national litmus test on a politician's immigration hawkishness, but California, as usual, was a pioneer in this vein. For decades, undocumented immigrants in California were permitted to apply for licenses. The legislature imposed the requirement that applicants show they're in the U.S. legally in 1993, during the era of anti-immigrant sentiment that also produced the infamous Proposition 187.
Gov. Gray Davis vetoed bills to liberalize the rules as late as 2002, then reversed himself in a bid to attract Latino support during the 2003 recall campaign. Davis' main opponent in that race and his match in political opportunism, Arnold Schwarzenegger, pledged to reverse Davis' action if he was elected, and promptly got the legislature to do so upon taking office.
The half-measures proposed in recent years to restore immigrant driving rights fail to address the core issue. California and other states have toyed with a separate driver's ID, in a different color or imprinted with a telltale "I," available to almost anyone and good for driving but not usable as official ID. Cedillo says Latinos were OK with that option, as it would protect them from such costly indignities as impoundment of cars driven by unlicensed motorists. But it would also flag some motorists as potential illegal immigrants. And it couldn't pass in California or many other states, anyway.
The only path out of this crazy labyrinth involves basic changes in mental and legal approach. First, stop treating the driver's license as a national ID card, and find more effective ways to secure air travel and verify eligibility for government programs. Second, accept that undocumented immigrants are here to stay, that they need to drive and are going to drive, and that nothing trumps the need to make sure they do so safely.
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.