The Legislature recently pushed through a provision in the state budget that clearly targeted undocumented immigrants, requiring the RMV to ask for “proof of legal residence” before applicants could register their vehicles. In seeking to amend that language, Governor Patrick noted that “it serves the public’s safety interests to know, through registration, the name and whereabouts of the owner of every vehicle on the Commonwealth’s roads.” But the Legislature sided with state lawmakers from Arizona to Alabama who want to dedicate state resources to the federal issue of immigration checks — by the Department of Transportation’s estimate, the provision will cost over a million dollars to implement.
A million dollars is small price to pay if it makes Massachusetts a safer place to drive, right?
But it won’t. If anything, stricter penalties on unlicensed driving only further push a sizable minority of our residents into a hopeless underclass. Undocumented immigrants won’t “self-deport” because of this provision. They’ll just shrink deeper into the shadows, and we’ll spend more state resources targeting them instead of focusing on real criminals. If we really wanted to make Massachusetts a safer place to drive we should (1) allow undocumented immigrants the ability to apply for driver’s licenses, just like every other state resident at least 16 years of age, and (2) crack down on drunk driving.
If we allow all residents 16 and over to apply for licenses, we can ensure that everyone on the road is properly tested and accounted for. As Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck told the LA Times, “Why wouldn’t you want to put people through a rigorous testing process? Why wouldn’t you want to better identify people who are going to be here?” Several states have done this, including New Mexico, Utah, and Washington.
The second item gets to the crux of this issue. These driving penalties are a direct response to the high profile case of Matthew Denice, who was killed by a drunk driver in Milford. This driver, Nicolas Guaman, happened to be undocumented. So instead of focusing on the serious issue of drunk driving, attention immediately turned to “illegal immigrants.” Enforcement proponents say, “If Nicolas Guaman had been deported, this never would have happened!” But what about Antonio Diaz Chacon, an undocumented immigrant who rescued a 6-year-old girl from being kidnapped in New Mexico that very same month? If he had been deported, then what?
It’s only natural to ask “what if” after a tragedy, but it’s a question that offers neither solution nor consolation. The fact is, undocumented immigrants are here, in numbers large enough nationally to populate the entire state of Ohio, and they are deeply integrated into our national fabric already. The latest Pew study estimates that 60 percent have been here for over 10 years, and 85 percent for at least five years (they also collectively paid over $11 billion in taxes). Laws targeting them make no distinction between the good and the bad, and they tear apart families, decimate communities and weaken economies in the process. On the other hand, there is no such thing as a good drunk driver, and that’s where the law should act.
Think about it. It was not the driver’s immigration status that made him unable to drive safely — it was the alcohol. The Globe reported in 2011 that drunk driving cases are woefully under-prosecuted: “The judges’ acquittal rate now exceeds 80 percent across Massachusetts … meaning at least four out of five alleged drunk drivers who place their fate in the hands of a judge are walking out of court free of the burden — and penalties — of a guilty verdict.”
These numbers are staggering. The real criminals here are left untouched while immigrants that are only trying to work and raise families are being punished. It shouldn’t be so hard to refocus our efforts to target those actions that actually endanger our safety. If the governor vetoes this measure, the Legislature should side with him, and with common sense.