Let Undocumented Immigrants Get Driver’s Licenses

An estimated 450,000 Mexicans successfully make their way across the border each year.
An estimated 450,000 Mexicans successfully make their way across the border each year, many seeking work further north. Digitally modified.

Karen Kasmauski/Getty Images.

The wise decision by President Obama to grant some undocumented immigrants the right to remain in the United States for two years without the threat of deportation is already benefitting the country. One example:  California may be on the cusp of issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. This would be a great step forward.

A bit of background. For many years, states would issue licenses to undocumented immigrants who knew how to drive and could prove their identity, often with a foreign passport. They did this for a simple reason: It made the roads safer. Fewer people were driving around without a license or insurance. That is why many leading law enforcement officials fully supported this policy. Even some conservative elected officials supported it—and preferred to separate it from the immigration issue. The policy not only made the roads safer but also allowed people with a license to more fully participate in the economy.

This policy was in place in a fair number of states—both red and blue—until 9/11. But 9/11 caused significant push-back against any right or privilege extended to undocumented immigrants, and the ability for them to get a driver’s license pretty much disappeared.

In 2007, when I was governor of New York, I proposed that our state once again permit undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. To say the proposal lit a firestorm in the political arena is an understatement. The decibel level of the screaming from those who wanted to stoke post-9/11 resentment—especially the noise from Lou Dobbs—is hard to exaggerate.

Despite that, when asked at a presidential debate in the fall of 2007 whether he would support the granting of licenses, then-Sen. Obama called it “the right idea.”

Now—several years later—he has made that possibility a reality.  He has taken a step that will permit those covered by his program to participate more fully in the wonders of our national economy and civic life. The president—along with states such as California that are moving toward granting licenses—should be congratulated.