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editorial

Step back from demagoguery on driver’s licenses

Getting a driver’s license doesn’t mean the government likes you, approves of your choices, or would let you date its daughter. What it means — all it means — is that you can drive a car safely.

Ensuring driver competence is a basic safety function of government. Yet driver’s licenses have emerged as an unlikely flashpoint in the immigration debate, mixing two issues that have no rational connection to each other. Hopefully, the recent — and eminently sensible — Supreme Court decision requiring Arizona to issue licenses to some illegal immigrants will cool tempers and lead to a more depoliticized approach to what should be exclusively a public safety issue.

The case came as politicians in various states, bowing to populist pressure, have increasingly sought to block illegal immigrants from getting driver’s licenses. That includes Massachusetts Governor-elect Charlie Baker, who opposes licenses for illegal immigrants in Massachusetts. The reasoning, to the extent there is any, is that granting licenses to illegal immigrants confers a government benefit on lawbreakers.

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But licenses are not a benefit. In fact, motorists ordinarily have to pay the government to get one, rather than vice versa. And they’re not given: They’re earned by demonstrating driving ability, and are routinely granted to noncitizens living in the United States. Nor are illegal immigrants taking something they haven’t paid for; drivers, no matter what their immigration status, all pay the gas taxes that build and maintain roads.

Yes, illegal immigrants have broken a law. But there’s no rationale for depriving people of licenses for crimes that don’t involve driving. Should litterers be ineligible for a driver’s license, too? Does allowing them to have one despite their misdeeds reward misbehavior? Don’t they realize that illegal is illegal?

Are we seriously having this discussion?

The Supreme Court’s decision neither changed anyone’s immigration status nor affected Arizona’s requirements for drivers. It let stand a lower court ruling that, properly, saw through the rhetoric, and determined that the law “appears intended to express animus” toward illegal immigrants rather than pursue a legitimate state interest. A license to drive is not a passport. After the Supreme Court’s ruling, responsible politicians ought to step back from demagoguery on the issue.