Driver’s licenses for illegals

It’s pretty much a straight-up choice between right and wrong. “No licenses” is bad on humanitarian grounds and bad on public-safety grounds, and has no plausible advantage. But it sounds good to most voters. Guess which Democratic candidate was willing to do the right thing?

At only one point did tonight’s debate touch on my area of professional competence: driver’s licenses for illegal aliens. That’s an issue on which there is only one politically salable answer, and only answer that can actually be justified in terms of public safety and human decency. Alas, they’re not the same answer.

People without driver’s licenses are socially crippled in a dozen ways. Unless there were some strong argument on the other side, sheer humanitarian considerations would argue for allowing them to have the basic personal identification document.

Of course, it’s not hard to buy a fake driver’s license. So the ban on giving real driver’s licenses to illegals supports the market in false documents, not something to which we should be indifferent given the terrorist threat.

People without driver’s licenses can’t get auto insurance. That’s bad for the victims of the accidents they are involved in (and one more good reason for pay-at-the-pump no-fault auto insurance). It also, as Barack Obama correctly noted, encourages them to hit and run.

Most of all, though, not having a driver’s license is an excellent reason for not wanting to talk to the police if, for example, you happened to be driving a car when you witnessed a crime. More than that, the no-license rule reminds illegals to avoid contact with authorities under any circumstances. Someone who is afraid to testify makes an attractive crime victim, and neighborhoods full of such people are safe places in which to commit crimes. Ask any big-city police chief where he stands on the driver’s license issue, and you’ll get an earful.

So on the one hand we have humanitarian and public-safety considerations, and on the other hand we have … what, exactly? The hope that people will deport themselves, or not enter illegally, because they can’t get a driver’s license? As Obama said, people come to this country to work, not to drive.

When HRC was pressed to justify her position, she was reduced to saying that it wouldn’t be “appropriate” to give a “privilege” such as a driver’s license to illegals. In the immortal words of Wolfgang Pauli, “That isn’t even wrong.” It’s pure assertion as a placeholder for an argument no one can make with a straight face.

Obama did a little waffling, asserting (as HRC did) that the problem would go away once there was “comprehensive immigration reform.” But then he stated clearly what he’s said before: he supports issuing licenses in the meantime.

Obama also rejected, as his opponent accepted and furthered, the questioner’s attempt to use the immigration issue to stir up black-v.-brown tensions.

Licenses for illegals is hardly the most important issue in the world, but as a symbol of willingness to bite the political bullet when necessary in support of the right policy, it strikes me as pretty powerful. There wasn’t much doubt which candidate looked Presidential. And it wasn’t the one who used to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Update Corrected to return Pauli’s words to their rightful owner.

Second update A reader points out that in Democratic-primary terms Obama’s move might have been politically shrewd as well as substantively correct. Point taken.

Third update Very little attention to this in the press as of late Friday, at least according to a Google search. But maybe that’s only the English-language press.

Mickey Kaus is outraged, and reports that his pro-Obama swoon is over. From his viewpoint, apparently black-brown tension is a feature, not a bug. In the view of Mickey and his friends, if some blacks dislike Jews, that just proves that that blacks are racist, while if other blacks fear Latinos, it proves that Latinos must be a real threat. Or something.

At least this spares Mickey and me the embarrassment of backing the same candidate.

Mickey also points to a report of a private poll showing California now even, with Obama surging. I don’t think Obama will mind losing Mickey if he picks up California in return.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: