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Untangle driver’s licenses from the immigration wars

A protester holds a sign as members of the state Assembly speak in favor of legislation of the Green Light Bill, granting undocumented Immigrant driver's licenses during a rally at the state Capitol in Albany on Monday. Hans Pennink/AP Photo/FR58980 AP via AP

New York’s long, polarizing war over issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants was finally resolved on Monday. After a heated debate, the state Senate passed a bill to overturn an 18-year-old ban, allowing residents to apply for a license regardless of their immigration status. The Senate vote sent the measure to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed it Monday night. With New York, there are now 13 states (plus the District of Columbia) in which proof of legal residence is not required to obtain a driver’s license.

Emotions run high on both sides of this issue. Polls showed that many New Yorkers opposed granting licenses to unlawful immigrants, and at least one county clerk announced that he intends to disregard the new law. Most Democratic legislators backed the legislation on the final vote, but it wasn’t all that long ago that such prominent New York liberals as Hillary Clinton firmly opposed giving licenses to undocumented immigrants. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand didn’t change her position until she announced in January that she was running for president.


Meanwhile, the debate continues elsewhere. In Florida, New Hampshire, and Indiana, advocates are pushing to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for licenses. A similar proposal was introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature in January, and there was a four-day march to the State House in April to drum up support. So far the measure has gone nowhere, largely because of opposition by Governor Charlie Baker.

I can’t think of any good reason to deny licenses to any population of otherwise competent drivers. Immigration status is not logically related to the right to drive, just as it isn’t related to the right to buy groceries or to open a bank account. For most adults in America, driving is a basic necessity. Preventing undocumented immigrants from doing so legally serves only to undermine roadway safety, impede economic productivity, and lessen social transparency.


Granted, none of that matters to those who regard illegal immigration as a hostile “invasion,” or who oppose any policy enabling the presence of people who entered the country without a visa. “Being in the United States is a privilege,” insisted Assemblyman Michael Norris during the New York debate, “and having a driver’s license is something that should only be allowed for those who are here legally.” He doubtless spoke for many.

Being in the United States is a privilege. Yet Norris would never argue that unauthorized immigrants should be kept out of hardware stores, prevented from mailing letters, or banned from going to an eye doctor. Not even the most ardent immigration absolutist wants to criminalize the ordinary activities of daily life for people in the country illegally. Can’t we wrangle over immigration policy without extending the dispute to areas that have no rational connection to border security?

There is only one reason why driver’s licensing has become entangled with immigration: because we authorize governments to license drivers. But there is no reason that should be the government’s role in the first place. No one should need the state’s permission to drive a car, just as no one needs the government’s permission to buy a house or to use a computer. Cars are potentially hazardous? So are pesticides, vodka, and boxing. You can indulge in all of them without obtaining an official license.


Roadways are public, and there is a legitimate public interest in keeping them safe. But that’s an argument only for imposing a legal duty of care on anyone using the roads. Government need not be in charge of licensing drivers in order to penalize those who drive negligently, harm others, or flout speed limits and traffic lights. By the same token, government can, and should, require motorists using public thoroughfares to carry insurance. That’s a far cry, however, from letting the government decide who gets to drive.

If that seems strange, it is only because that’s not the arrangement we are accustomed to. Yet in other areas of life, we take it for granted. The state imposes many stringent obligations on adults who have children, after all — but nobody would let the state choose who may become a parent.

So let’s stop letting the state choose who may drive. Life would be more pleasant without the Registry of Motor Vehicles. And while our immigration battles may go on, there’s no reason to ensnare them with irrelevant fights over licensing drivers.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to his free weekly newsletter, Arguable, click here.