A sensible undocumented immigrant driver's license plan

Feb 7, 2014

One sensible solution for the controversy over Rhode Island licenses for undocumented immigrants: give out special licenses so long as the motorist takes the drivers’ test in English.

It’s too bad that states have to tackle this mess at all, but with Republicans in Congress playing the worst sort of partisan politics with immigration overhaul, there may be no other choice but for states to act individually. Republicans look like they are playing to the 2014 midterm elections at the expense of frittering away a chance at winning the 2016 presidential election. One guesses they are confident their red state, aging white voter base will turn out to vote this year so they can keep the House and win back the Senate. This political calculus may work, but it is a silly and cynical way in which to deal with 21st Century America.

Republicans who understand history should look at what happened after the anti-Roman Catholic immigration laws of the 1920s. Republicans did not win a presidential election after 1928 until 1952 when WWII 

hero Gen. Dwight Eisenhower captured the White House.

The right may pretend to venerate Ronald Reagan, but he couldn’t win a GOP presidential primary south of the Smith&Wesson- Dixon line these days. Remember it was Reagan who advocated the 1980s immigrant amnesty program.

``I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,'' said Reagan during his 1984 re-election campaign, in which he carried 49 of 50 states. (Reagan was the last GOP presidential hopeful to win in Rhode Island).

The correct, humane  way to handle this problem is on a national basis, so that there would be one standard that would apply nationwide. This is the case with the drinking age and interstate highway standards.

Yet because of the absolute refusal to deal with the fact that there are 11 million or so undocumented immigrants who live in the shadows of our society, states will likely have to act, sooner rather than later. This is sad, especially in our corner of New England, because it may create a quilt-work of laws that will ill serve our tight-knit states.

Because so many of us travel across state borders to work or for family visits or recreation or medical appointments, it would be smart for Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island to work together on standards for special licenses for immigrants who came to our states without legal documentation.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee has outlined a reasonable plan to allow undocumented residents to qualify for special driving licenses. This would be a huge aid to our sluggish economy because it would allow the undocumented to drive to their jobs. And it would also give parents who could afford a car a safety net in the case of, say, a child’s sickness or family emergency.

It is also an obvious public safety issue: 'Tis much better to be able to keep track of those who are driving around our state than to have undocumented immigrants driving illegally, as is now the case.

Making these motorists take the driving test in English should be a requirement because the road signs are printed in English. It would be another incentive for the newly arrived to learn English, a crucial factor in prospering in our nation and participating in the civic culture.

Most of the arguments against Chafee’s proposal are sheer jingoism and prejudice. Some argue that this will attract more illegal immigrants to Rhode Island. These are the same folks who are under the delusion that our state’s so-called generous social safety net programs are a magnet for illegal immigrants. As if we were Texas or California or Florida with hordes of illegal immigrants swimming across Narragansett Bay to collect food stamps or get on Medicaid.

Massachusetts has even more generous state social programs than R.I., namely universal health care. Yet it is notable that the Bay State’s civic and media culture is not filled with as much nonsense  on this issue as Rhode Island’s. The Boston Globe's editorial page doesn't print such piffle.

If Governor Chafee proposed a plan to ensure sunny weather after every snow storm without spending a penny of taxpayer money, some in our state’s desultory media landscape would rant against it.