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Responsibility or Reward?: Why Allowing Illegal Immigrants To Hold Driver's Licenses Would Increase Safety And Lower Insurance Rates For Everyone

by Matthew Kalinowski

According to Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson himself, it is "not realistic" to think that law-enforcement authorities can arrest or deport the millions of illegal aliens now in the United States.[1] Hutchinson went so far as to suggest that officials from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are not even really looking for most of the millions of illegal aliens living and working on U.S. soil.

So, the federal government has more or less given up on extracting illegal immigrants who are already here, and it is a safe assumption that most illegal immigrants who have conducted daily life here for a substantial period of time are in no rush to return to their home countries. In spite of this, earlier in 2004, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger repealed a bill, known as SB60, which would have allowed that state's illegal immigrants to apply for driver's licenses. Opponents of the legislation voiced concerns regarding national security, since the law would not have required background checks. In the wake of the events of September 11, many states which had been considering similar bills put the legislation on hold pending further review. Immigrants from Latin America have not been as patient, however, and have continued to seep in through the U.S.-Mexican border to come find jobs throughout the States.

Aside from the threat of terrorism, the other rationale for opposing the bill was more ideological and less pragmatic. "For 99.9 percent of the immigrants who come here illegally, they come here to work, they come here to better their lives. We understand that," said California Republican State Sen. Thomas Oller, who authored the repeal measure that Schwarzenegger signed. "At the same time, they did break the law to come here. And if you break U.S. immigration law, you should not be rewarded." But, do we really "reward" illegal immigrants by holding them responsible for their own actions behind the wheel? And isn't it actually the general public who is "rewarded" by requiring everyone, including illegal immigrants, to pass the same driving tests and retain the same liability insurance coverage before getting behind the wheel?

The problem lies principally with conservative perspective on the matter. Many Republicans such as Sen. Oller have insisted on framing the issue as something that necessarily either favors God-fearing, red-blooded, legitimate U.S. citizens, or else places unbridled power into the hands of undeserving, underhanded illegal aliens. This is why Republicans in state governments have discussed these laws in terms of a refusal to encourage illicit behavior - namely, illegal immigration.

But those who truly believe that denying undocumented workers the chance to apply for driver's licenses will deter future foreigners from sneaking across borders to live here have not been paying much attention to California's demographics from the past 30 years. God bless those immigrants who follow all of the rules, and study hard to pass the citizenship test, in order to be naturalized. But the facts indicate that the millions of illegal residents who are already here are more concerned with keeping their heads above water and working to feed their children than memorizing names of state capitols.[2] You don't need to be an immigration specialist to realize that illegals would rather come to the U.S. - and merely risk driving to work everyday without a license - than continue living under an oppressive regime or in abject poverty rather. A more sensible assumption is that the illegals are willing to pay at least a small premium to cover basic liability insurance, which would protect what little they own in case of a serious auto accident.

But most importantly, perspectives such as Sen. Oller's ignore the fact that this move would principally benefit those who reside here legally. A detached and depoliticized analysis of SB60 and similar legislation reveals it as a boon to U.S. citizens that only incidentally benefits undocumented residents. For a state government to deny vital benefits to its constituents merely in order to prevent illegal immigrants from accruing any gains whatsoever would truly be like cutting off its nose to spite its face. Such laws present advantages to all U.S. citizens in two principal forms: personal safety and insurance coverage. Legislation like SB60 would improve personal safety for all by requiring illegals to pass the same driving and written tests as U.S. citizens. It is vital that all immigrants - documented and otherwise - are subject to this requirement, because they immigrate to the U.S. to work. In areas such as Los Angeles, the immigrants (not to mention everyone else in that city) must drive to work. Undocumented workers know this is a risky move if they are caught, but they do not have much other choice. Many of these immigrants are behind the wheel without having acquired the basic driving skills or familiarity of traffic laws that comes with driver's education, which is a necessary step to earning a driver's license. Clearly, this presents a hazard to everyone else sharing the highways.

Also, SB60 would have improved the lot of all Californians by requiring the illegals to carry auto insurance. Currently, California law prohibits its millions of undocumented immigrants from purchasing any auto insurance which would pay for accidents they are involved in. At the same time, California law requires all other drivers to possess a valid driver's license, vehicle registration, and proof of minimum liability insurance before getting behind the wheel. This means that if SB60 had been implemented, those who suffer in auto accidents involving undocumented workers would no longer be forced to pay for expenses out of their own pockets (or out of the pockets of everyone else who does pay insurance premiums). But even for states that do not oblige drivers to purchase insurance, evidence shows that if given the chance to do so, illegal immigrants would buy some type of coverage. Utah, for example, passed a law allowing driver's licenses to immigrants, and consequently the state's no-insurance rate fell from 23 percent in 1997 to 9 percent in 2001, and now stands at 3 percent.

It should be noted, however, that those who oppose similar bills like SB60 are correct in one criticism - such legislation often leaves open large loopholes for threats to national security. Although virtually everyone who applies for licenses under these rules does so in good faith, the fact that some of these laws do not require any type of background check is irresponsible at best. This is especially true considering that several of the September 11 terrorists obtained fraudulent driver's licenses from Virginia, since that state did not require applicants to show verifiable proof of identification. On the other hand, overly restrictive or prying measures that impede access to the licenses will discourage illegals from applying at all, and the law would end up making little difference.

Therefore, awarding a driver's license should require some type of legitimate, government issued identifying documentation which state motor vehicle agencies can cross reference with FBI security databases. Sufficient records could include the immigrant's IRS-issued federal taxpayer identification number, along with a combination of other documents, such as a birth certificate, foreign driver's license, or foreign passport. Last month, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush supported a sensible bill that would have allowed undocumented residents to drive legally, contingent upon fingerprinting and a criminal background check by the applicant's consulate. This might have struck the appropriate balance between national security and highway safety, but the bill's opponents snuffed it out, citing the same faulty logic that has killed similar bills across the country (i.e., "never mind that it makes our roads safer and brings down everyone's insurance payments - it might encourage them to sneak in!").

Another solution to the safety problems stemming from issuance of government ID to illegals would be to allow them to purchase insurance without a license. For instance, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen supports a plan to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for "certificates for driving," which grant fewer privileges than full-fledged licenses. Holders of such certificates would not be able to use them for identification purposes (thereby minimizing the security threat), but rather simply for the purpose of acquiring drivers insurance.

A study by the RAND Corporation, in the Center for Research and Immigration Policy, notes that over 3 million immigrants came to California throughout the 1990s. Those who have stayed have joined the work force in a variety of jobs in agriculture, the hotel and restaurant industry, construction, manufacturing, and other industries located throughout the state. Immigrants, both legal and otherwise, presently make up about half of California's residents and labor force. An estimated 9 million to 11 million undocumented workers now live throughout the United States.

These figures indicate that ICE (formerly the Immigration & Naturalization Service) and the Department of Homeland Security have been all but ineffective at curbing the level of illegal immigration, despite millions of dollars in federal funding. Schwarzenegger's repeal of SB60 ensures that California will continue to be legally unequipped to deal with the consequences, as far as motorist safety and auto insurance are concerned. The same can be said of other states that have also considered and rejected such legislation. The lure of a much better life will continue to drive Central and South Americans northward, so long as a huge wealth disparity exists. Moreover, the Census Bureau projects that within the next 20 years, California will have over 20% more vehicles on the street than it has now.

All of these illegals, driving all of these cars, have yet to definitively dictate contemporary racial politics (as evidenced by Schwarzenegger's prompt repeal of SB60). However, they undoubtedly define the current reality that plays out everyday on U.S. streets and highways. Legislation like SB60 forces states to take their heads out from under the sand and account for these realities. "These people are here illegally and they should have followed the law to come here in the first place," bellowed Sen. Oller in reaction to the bill. No one contests this point. They are here illegally, they are driving to and from work everyday, and they do have auto accidents like any other motorist. What they do not have is liability insurance, because the law forbids them from doing so.

Therefore, this controversy does not dote over how undocumented immigrants got into the country yesterday. Rather, it realistically revolves around what to do about it today. Now that millions of illegal immigrants are already living and working here, should our government merely cross its arms and fume over how anyone could commit such an immoral affront to our nation, or should it instead take measures to protect everyone from inevitable human error that occurs each day on the roads? It is true that passing such laws concedes that America has systemically failed to seal its porous boundaries or to round up the immigrants who have already sneaked across the border, as even Undersecretaty Hutchinson now concedes. But at the same time, laws like SB60 swap an inert idealistic denial in exchange for an active realism by placing everyone's personal safety and tax dollars above the nationalistic rhetoric.

1 Seper, Jerry. "Rounding up all illegals 'Not Realistic.'" The Washington Times [updated 10 September 2004; cited 2 October 2004]. Available from
2 For instance, the number of Mexican-born aliens to naturalize in the year 2000 actually fell 4% from the previous year. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Naturalizations: Fiscal Year 2000. Available from

About The Author

Matthew Kalinowski is in his last year of studies at the George Washington University Law School. He is a member of that law school's Immigration Clinic.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.