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Driver's License Rules Address Only Part Of The Picture

by Gerard M. Chapman

Recent articles around the country editorial highlight pending state and federal legislation governing eligibility for driver's licenses. If passed, these laws will require an applicant for a new or renewal driver's license to submit a valid Social Security number, or prove that he or she is lawfully present in the United States.

The debate over the state law highlights the tension between valid state concerns and those of the federal government. State legislators rightfully point out that a licensed driver has learned the rules of the road. If the proposed state and/or federal laws are passed, then workers who lack proper documentation, but still need to drive to work, will not be as likely to know those rules. In addition, employers who need those workers to drive during work hours will be subject to personal injury claims, and may have to face coverage denials by their insurance carriers if the driver is unlicensed.

It is a mistake to focus on this one issue, important though it is. There is a much bigger issue at stake: who will be eligible for legal status in this country. Virtually everyone knows that the current immigration system is broken. Our laws prohibit an employer from sponsoring any manual laborer (construction, landscaping, food processing, all service industries, etc.) for a temporary visa if the position is filled all year round. Essential workers who fill those jobs cannot enter the US legally, except through the green card process, which is currently backlogged for over 5 years. No employer can wait that long to fill that kind of job.

The talking heads on TV repeatedly claim that most Americans want the undocumented to be deported. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The polls that they cite are grossly slanted to generate a predictable response. A very recent poll conducted by ABC News-Washington Post indicates that the restrictionists are wrong. When asked about undocumented workers who are in the US and are filling jobs that US workers either will not or cannot fill, the respondents expressed dramatic support for giving these workers legal status. This report about the ABC News-Washington Post poll appeared as an Immigration Daily comment entitled, "Americans Support Immigration".

"An ABC News-Washington Post nationwide poll conducted on January 12-16, 2005 indicates that support for a guestworker program and legalization among Americans exists, by nearly a 2-1 margin. 61% of those polled responded that undocumented immigrants should be able to keep their jobs and apply for legal status, compared to 36% who thought they should be deported." Immigration Daily (February 11, 2005).
The majority if Americans realize that we cannot have it both ways with these essential workers: today banks collect transmittal fees when these workers send home billions of dollars of remittances to their families back home, but they cannot work legally. Today their children can attend high school, but when it comes time for the best and the brightest of them to attend college, schools either turn them away for lack of a Social Security number, or conveniently charge them out of state tuition, even when they have been state residents for as much as 15 or 16 years. Today they can clean our houses and businesses and wash our toilets, but because they are undocumented, they cannot even dream of buying decent housing. As Professor Douglas S. Massey of Princeton wrote in July of 2003:
"At the same time, a large fraction of new immigrants are undocumented and marginalized from the rest of American society; even those with legal papers find their access to social benefits constrained unless they are citizens. If U. S. authorities had set out to intentionally design a program to create a future underclass, they could not have done a better job." The American Prospect, Online Edition, (July 2, 2003).
The plight of these children affects all of us. Those children who see that they have no future beyond high school, and little opportunity in employment, are ripe for recruitment into the drug trade. Our current system can be deadly in more direct ways. It supports and encourages coyotes to conduct an illegal human trade; those coyotes grow rich off of that trade, but at the first hint of danger to themselves, they will leave their customers in the desert or mountains, or even locked in the back of a tractor trailer to suffocate to death.

Sadly, the system also encourages employers to ignore the law and, if the status quo does not change soon, it will encourage them to have contempt for it. A country that prides itself on being a nation of laws cannot let the situation get any further out of control.

From the late 1940's to the early 1970's, the US had a guest worker program (commonly known as the "Bracero" program). Before it was enacted, illegal entries into the US numbered about a million annually. When it was enacted, the number dropped to about 25,000 per year. When the program was rescinded, illegal entries shot right back up to over a million a year. That program was abused by some employers, due in part to a failure by the government to supervise it. It could have been done correctly, and should have been.

An example of the contrasting treatment given to different kinds of workers is instructive: temporary visas (e.g., H-1B) are available for computer design engineers and other professionals, but the law explicitly prohibits an employer from filing a temporary visa petition for the year-round workers who build the chairs in which those professional workers sit.

The moral of the story is twofold. First, if we have a workable visa status for essential workers, they and their employers will use it. Second, our immigration laws should support our economic system, not contradict it.

In 2004, Members of Congress introduced three bills to reform our system, but none of them came to a vote. Members of the Senate are drafting similar legislation right now, in an attempt to bring the undocumented into our immigration system, so that we will know who is here, and so that those who have sponsors can work legally. As President Bush has said, willing workers and willing employers should be able to get together and do so within the law. In addition, if essential workers are identified and brought within the system, we can use enforcement and investigative resources to identify and apprehend terrorists, instead of spending billions of dollars each year on our Southern border trying to defeat the law of supply and demand.

If we fail to reform our immigration laws, we will continue taking unfair advantage of these loyal, hard working, dependable workers who want nothing more than to be given fair opportunity (in housing, education and employment) in return for an honest day's labor. We also will continue to soil a noble, 200 year tradition of being a nation of laws.

However, if we reform the immigration laws to be realistic and in sync with our economic system, then the pending driver's license laws can operate consistently with the immigration system. That is what we all should want - nothing more and nothing less.

Gerard M. Chapman. All rights reserved.

About The Author

Gerard M. Chapman has been a Board Certified Immigration Specialist since 1997. He graduated from UNC-CH in 1973 with a BA in International Studies, and in 1978 he received his JD, cum laude, from the University of Georgia School of Law. He has served as an AILA Ethics Mentor and as a Labor Certification Mentor. He is a trustee of AILF. He served as Chair of the Carolinas Chapter of AILA and as a member of AILA's Board of Governors from 1998-2000. Mr. Chapman has served as the Chair or Co-Chair of three national AILA Committees: the Immigrant Investor Visa Committee (1990-93), the Committee on Intracompany Transferees and International Managers and Executives (1993-94) and the Essential Worker Committee (1999- present). He also is a member of AILA's Law Office Management Committee. Mr. Chapman has authored articles in several AILA publications and lectured at immigration seminars in the United States and abroad. He has been involved in AILA's efforts to secure immigration reform on a national level. The comments of Mr. Chapman are his own, and should not be attributed to anyone else, to any organization or to any committee on which he serves or has served. Mr. Chapman can be reached by email at:

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