Licenses for Illegals

From the corner of my eye, I saw my car jump off the ground.

I was at the park with my friends debating the finer points of chicken grilling when the sound of a vehicle crashing into my parked automobile spoiled the slightly chilly Sunday afternoon air. We rushed towards the wreckage: a totaled trunk, three flat tires, and a broken axle gushing fluid. Infuriated at the prospect of driving my parents' jalopy for weeks, I confronted the guilty party, a young Latino who slurred, "Amigo, I crashed your car" before drunkenly trying to flee.

My friends eventually subdued the man as I called the police department demanding that they arrest him, not even bothering, in the heat of the moment, to check if he had suffered injuries. He wasn't worthy of attention; he had ruined my day of tranquility and left me with no car. I smirked with glee when the cops finally arrived to take him into custody. I hoped his license would be revoked.

The retributive anger soon turned to guilt, however, when I learned that my wish was already granted, with repercussions far worse than I had desired. My friends told me that as the squad car drove away, the man had tearfully begged the officers to let him go, saying he was an illegal immigrant without a driver's license. Forget prison -- he was going to be deported.

My conscious gnawed at me for allowing the illegal immigrant to be arrested, not only because I played the role of enforcer for policies to which I am opposed, but also because my father had once been in a similar situation. He entered California illegally in 1969, but was able to obtain a driver's license while he was undocumented. It was legal at that time; not until 1994 was the law that allowed it rescinded. My father established a successful career as a truck driver while still illegal -- all due to a laminated card at the center of a national debate that's ostensibly about safer roads but is in reality a humanitarian issue.

Twenty-nine states currently allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses; most of the rest are considering legislation that would follow suit. If passed, the new state rules would only give illegal immigrants the right to apply for a driver's license. They would have to pass the same written exam that citizens currently do, and encounter the same stern driving test to guarantee that unqualified drivers stay off the roadways.

Nevertheless, opposition based on fears of ID abuse has been voiced, with renewed energy since Sept. 11. Allowing illegal immigrants to acquire driver's licenses, the argument goes, opens the floodgates for terrorists to commit identity theft or worse with fraudulent identification. California governor Gray Davis, in vetoing AB 1463 -- a bill passed by the California Assembly last year that allowed illegal immigrants to obtain licenses -- expressed such sentiments, stating that AB 1463 was "an invitation for fraud" permitting criminals to commit crimes at their discretion.

However, citing potential fraud or crimes committed with a false license is a spurious point for denying people the right to drive. Identity fraud will continue whether illegal immigrants are allowed licenses or not.

Besides, opponents forget what my father knew well: a driver's license plays a crucial role in improving the lives of illegal immigrants and their communities. Having the right to drive is an important first step in bettering one's economic status. It would permit these economically important yet largely powerless workers to better integrate into society. With a license, an immigrant has the freedom to go wherever he or she wants, instead of relying on frequently unreliable public transportation or the mercy of others. Keeping illegal immigrants from legally driving contributes to cycles of poverty in immigrant communities.

If I knew at the time of the crash that the man who totaled my car was undocumented and had no license, I would have let him go. Although the damage was substantial, I was fully insured. My car would eventually be returned as good as ever, at no cost to me. The man, in contrast, is probably somewhere in his native country, his American experience ruined by my foolish anger and a foolish law. The maxim, "A driver's license is a privilege, not a right," rings hollow when the privilege is denied to millions of hard working adults living in the United States.

Arellano (cosmogus@earthlink.net) is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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