DMI Blog

Suman Raghunathan

A Public Safety Decision on Immigration Becomes ‘Drivergate’

New York State Republicans (and a fair amount of Democrats, too, let’s be frank) are hot on the trail of terrorists. And to try to force said terrorists to come out, come out, wherever they are, Senate Republicans want to…stop them from going to a government agency to apply for a Driver’s License.

Great. This makes sense because allowing people to remain in the shadows, away from government regulation (which is, incidentally, supposed to be making us safer) is a good thing, right? Of course. I get it. I feel safer already. Really.

The latest gem of nonsensical hyperbole stems from Senator Vincent Leibell, an upstate Republican, who in a lopsided public hearing on Monday predicted that the Governor’s plan would grant a license to Osama Bin Laden.

And you would prefer the Titan of Terrorism to drive around New York State without a license, or with a forged one, Senator Leibell?

Monday’s hearing, organized by Senate Republicans and mostly featuring them, summoned the State Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner, David Swarts, to defend the Driver’s License policy, which closely mirrors policies in eight other states. Kudos to Swarts, who showed a shining ray of bureaucratic clarity when he said,

“[Undocumented immigrants] are here to stay… Many of them participate in the economic viability of the state; to ignore their presence raises some questions.”

You said it, David.

(Click here for State Senator Eric Schneidermann’s explanation of why issuing Driver’s Licenses to people who all those who can prove their identity makes for good public policy and good sense, period.)

Under Spitzer’s plan, starting in December DMV offices will begin carefully screening valid foreign passports using a new electronic verification system and, once verified (which can take up to four or six weeks), will then issue licenses to those who, along with the rest of those with valid immigration status, have passed the Driver’s Test and can provide proof of insurance. According to a report by the AAA, it’s clear the increase in driver regulation will reduce accidents; according to Spitzer, it will also save New York drivers around $120 million in insurance fees. It’s simple economics: once you increase supply (in this case of car insurance), the price of said insurance will go down. That’s good news for all New York drivers, particularly middle class ones increasingly affected by income inequality and skyrocketing insurance rates.

New York State Senate Republicans are so riled up about Governor Spitzer’s proposal to have the DMV do its job, the spat has earned the moniker ‘Drivergate’. Various County Clerks (whose offices often double as DMV branches in small towns upstate) are now rising up in high dudgeon about the policy and are threatening to not issue the licenses to undocumented immigrants or others without a valid Social Security number (I’ve already written plenty about how flawed this database is, ‘nuff said) or a valid visa. Lastly, now Senate Republicans are threatening to withhold funding from the DMV and to further hamstring the legendarily dysfunctional New York State budget process next year.

What we’re really seeing here is a partisan mudslinging contest between Governor Spitzer and Senate Republicans, who it appears are miffed that Spitzer has reveled in legislative sparring with them over the past 9 months and didn’t ask them first before coming out with his policy.

There is such a cesspool of faulty logic, political pandering, and anti-immigrant invective here, I need to boil down my responses into points.

1. DMV’s mission is “to provide the best possible service to the motoring public." The motoring public is best served by knowing they’re sharing the streets with people who have been regulated. More specifically, regulated as to the safety of their driving, and to certify they have auto insurance. As a state agency, DMV is NOT an immigration enforcement agency, nor is it part of the federal government, which is responsible for setting and enforcing laws related to immigration. To paraphrase, this issue does not fall on DMV’s block.

2. Undocumented workers are crucial players in the state’s economy, and denying them the right to get to work does not honor their contributions as workers, nor as consumers. Nor does it help New York (or the nation’s) tax base and Social Security system. Nationally, the Social Security Administration estimates undocumented immigrants pump $6-$7 billion annually in payroll taxes into the Social Security program.

Another study this year found Long Island Latinos (many of them living in ‘mixed-status’ families where some family members are US citizens, others have green cards, and others are undocumented) contributed a net benefit of $202 million annually in sales taxes to the local economy.

Once you limit immigrants’ access to a driver’s license – thereby restricting the extent to which they can contribute to the economy – you’re cutting off a vital stream of tax resources that in turn fund our schools, roads, hospitals, and community centers.

3. Separating undocumented immigrants into a different class of (unlicensed) drivers will further deprive them of worker choice by pushing them deeper into an underground economy, where their rights as workers will go the way of their rights as drivers.
Limited worker choice will likely be confined to work options where transport is included (like day labor,

which we all know ranks high on the scale of worker exploitation), or to work options accessible by public transportation or by foot (options largely limited to pedestrian-friendly New York City, and certainly not the case upstate). All of this is a set-up for employers who want to take advantage of their workers, for example by docking workers’ pay for transportation costs, or by threatening to report their undocumented workers to immigration authorities if they demand fair pay or safe working conditions.

The end result for American middle class workers? Lower wages and working conditions across the board.

Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation for immigrants and native-born workers, their families, and the New York State economy.

Take that, Senator Leibell.

Suman Raghunathan: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 8:03 AM, Oct 16, 2007 in Immigration
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