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The Mechanics
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State Politics Thu Jan 31 2013

Driven to Distraction: The New Illinois Temporary Visitor DL

While Congress ponders a "pathway to citizenship" for some of the millions among us who arrived in the country under the radar, Illinois has forged ahead, sending waves of ecstasy through some constituencies and outraging others, by providing a pathway to the highway for those in the same boat. Or sedan.

Yes, for those who were under a rock or asleep, the State of Illinois last week put aside that annoying chatter about pensions and bond ratings for a while so we could concentrate on getting some documents for those who claim to lack them. Governor Quinn this week signed a bill that will allow illegal (and some legal) immigrants to get special Illinois Temporary Visitor Drivers' Licenses, although it may be a year before the Secretary of State's office figures out how to implement it. Supporters claim this will make our roads safer . Opponents fling their hands in the air (but not while driving, we hope) at the idea of "rewarding" those who are in Illinois only by virtue of their own, or someone else's violation of federal immigration law.

This site hasn't touched this hot topic since the bill signing, and so it was shoved my way like a bowl of cereal toward Little Mikey. So here's a short column about traffic -- probably mainly website traffic, since anything touching on immigration brings out sloganeers from all corners.

The 15 speakers and mariachi band at the ceremonial signing signal to me that this is Big Political Stuff. But in truth I don't think it will have enough real impact to validate either the hopes or fears expressed. Mainly because I don't think that many will take advantage of it.

Some of the stated assumptions behind the bill, SB957, I confess, puzzle me. It's said it will make our roads safer by generating more insured drivers. If I follow the logic correctly, there are scores of thousands of uninsured immigrants driving around Illinois, and the reason for that is they supposedly can't get insurance because they don't have drivers' licenses, and the reason for that is because they are here illegally. Hence: allow licenses, which will generate more insurance, which will "make our roads safer."

A couple difficult turns in that reasoning. First of all, having insurance doesn't make anyone a better driver. It just means that victims have a better chance of getting compensated when the drivers smash into a car, bike, pedestrian, or (occasionally, but we see it on the Sunday night news) house. I say "better chance" because, first of all, some policies are written by companies that fight every single claim tooth and nail, so much so that many PI lawyers won't touch a case where the defendant was insured by Fly By Night Mutual Assurance. And even the most responsible companies have become more aggressive in defending claims in the past decade. But I doubt that low-wage workers are going to be buying policies from the most responsible companies, nor for amounts above the Illinois minimum, which barely covers a broken arm these days.

Second, insurance policies generally are issued on vehicles, not on drivers. The new law technically requires the applicant to show proof of insurance. But how do you get insurance without a license? Isn't that the problem?

When pressed on the points like above, proponents seem to explain that it's not that the insurance per se makes anyone safer, but that the tests you must pass to get a license do. The implicit or explicit argument is that illegal immigrants would be better drivers than they would be if there were a pathway to a license.

Again, the logic is not 100% clear. Are proponents saying that illegal immigrants, unless incentivized through a state card, have insufficient interest in learning safe and proper operation of their vehicle, which for most people is a significant personal investment? I would hope that no matter where you're from and where you are living, you'd want to learn how to drive properly, for your own sake and others'.

Also, my experience is that on those rare occasions when folks realize they left the house without a wallet and are driving around without a license, they drive really, really carefully.

But say that indeed it's the lack of licensability that's holding back the roadworthiness of hundreds of thousands of "temporary visitors." Let's walk thru the mental process of the law's target market. Say you're an immigrant who currently tools up and down the Kennedy without drivers' ed, unaware of rules of the road, uninsured, "undocumented," in a car you bought from a dealer who let you drive it off the lot without a license, or that a friend drove home for you. I.e., every day of your life you're in violation of federal and several state laws. Do you want, now, to come forward and put your name on a government list that profiles you as someone who has done just that? I admit my perspective is limited. As best I can recall, I've never snuck into another country illegally, but if I did, why on earth would I want to give that foreign government my address and contact info, and tell them what car I drive, knowing that my application is going straight into a database of primarily illegal immigrants? My working assumption is that most illegal immigrants have both some degree of cleverness and some incentive to be on the down-low, and I can't imagine why such folks would be in a rush to provide the State with any such information that was in any way accurate.

So, I don't see a lot of peeps doing this, and even if they do, I doubt it'll make them either much better drivers or much better insured. What state that has already enacted a version of what Illinois has done has any demonstrabIe reduction in accidents by unlicensed or uninsured drivers? This law may make our roads immeasurably safer -- but with emphasis on "immeasurably." So it looks to be mainly political symbolism, intended to convey some sense of legitimacy upon the target class of beneficiaries, and to send a broader message of economic benefit, from their presence, to the broader public. Thus, cue the mariachis.

On the other hand, I think the fears expressed have even less validity than the promises. The main argument is that it will spur massive fraud, and facilitate immigration fraud. Wait, I say -- you mean, in a country where our liquor laws already incentivize untold millions of our young people to forge government IDs, which apparently can be done by anyone with Photoshop skilz and a second-hand laminator? Where entire small businesses in immigrant communities already flourish on forgery? Where entire databases of private credit card info, or government agency information on citizens, and government laptops themselves, are routinely hacked or stolen? Where, every day, I get e-mails purporting to be from friends but that when clicked direct me to buy low-price knockoff Viagra from Nakedladyzstan? In this society, you fear folks will be making some nefarious use of IDs they risk deportation by even applying for?

The US borders are apparently already so porous that massive amounts of drugs, human beings, cheap weapons, invasive mussels and who knows what else come into the country every year, and our system of identification, despite the fact you can't buy a battery at Radio Shack without giving your ZIP code, so in danger of complete compromise and collapse that we may soon have to abandon it all and, like many Afghans, just start going by first name only. The fear that drivers' licenses that practically are nametags saying "Hi, I'm an illegal immigrant, My Name Is ____" will dramatically affect this picture seems overwrought. I have a lot more concern over the general damage being done to our collective ethic by the aforesaid incentivization of forgery for an entire generation of young adults.

Also, more likely than the target market misusing this process is the probability that those who aren't entitled to it will at least try to do so. This has serious and unserious consequences. The serious possibility is that bonafide American gang members, con artists, and other criminals will, despite the law's requirements, obtain "Illegal Immigrant" drivers' licenses that they can pull out when stopped or even arrested, facilitating evasion of prosecution. On the upside, there is a great Second City skit to be had out of a line of people confronting unresponsive or skeptical bureaucrats, trying to prove that they are undocumented. Cue Ionesco. Or Lou Abbott.

My comedic instinct is to write a number of local consulates, asking for reciprocity, advising that I intend to jump a border into their country and want to know how I go about getting a drivers' license after I do so. My serious instinct is that uninsurance is a real problem that lets too many drivers maim without consequence, and that that issue could be more effectively and profitably addressed by letting the State become an insurer of last resort, but at a revenue-generating rate. However, I'll guess that while IMHO this isn't a major advance or defeat (depending on your POV) in the immigration debate, those who want it most will be the most responsible of those eligible, and I'm glad that, for the time being, this is behind us. I hope it works out and that proponents' hopes of greater safety and accountability are at least part realized. As I've said publicly and privately, these hot-button issues take up bandwidth that would be better focused on bigger but less sexy issues, such as the dwindling of entire food fish species. Perhaps we can see the same degree of bipartisanship that this law catalyzed, on some fiscal and environmental fronts where there is no clear ethnic constituency to court.

 
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