Give Illegal Immigrants Licenses and Obligations

Peter Skerry
Peter Skerry Former Brookings Expert, Professor of Political Science - Boston College

August 20, 2006

Last week, the Legislature again rejected a bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Immigrant advocates see this issue as a question of public safety and basic fairness, while their opponents regard it as rewarding illegal, even criminal, behavior. Still others seem willing to accommodate immigrants they believe are contributing to the state’s economy but are nevertheless concerned about encouraging more illegal crossings. Is there any way to resolve this dilemma, or are Californians — and Americans generally — fated to continue running in circles around it?

To get at this question, we need to think about what is fueling the backlash against immigrants.

Underlying all the complaints about immigrants — they take away jobs, they undermine the rule of law, they ruin our schools, they crowd our emergency rooms, they make too much noise — is the generalized feeling that “things are out of control.” One hears this about the distant Mexican border as well as neighborhoods next to downtown L.A.

This sentiment echoes the public’s reaction to escalating crime rates in the 1980s and 1990s. Illegal immigrants are not criminals. But the current influx of immigrants — legal and illegal — is similarly straining the social fabric.

Key to the battle against crime during the 1980s and 1990s was the idea of “broken windows” — how such minor infractions as prostitution, public urination and drug possession can lead to more serious offenses. Criminals pick up on this quickly — and so do anxious citizens.

Recall the controversy in New York City, for example, over squeegeeing car windshields at stop lights and then extorting money from drivers. Immigrant day laborers loitering near Home Depots are today’s squeegee men: not engaged in criminal activity per se, but representing to many passersby a sign of social disorder. The “broken windows” theory of policing reminds us that such unease, however misplaced or poorly articulated, nevertheless reflects rational concerns about strains in the social fabric.

If policymakers were to acknowledge the social disruptions resulting from mass migration, they might be able to resolve the controversy over driver’s licenses. Illegal immigrants want licenses; Californians want less disorder in their communities. Why not issue licenses to illegals in exchange, say, for their commitment to making sure their children attend school regularly? Why not make such agreements the basis of a new social compact?

Singling out such behaviors as loitering at Home Depots may seem petty — especially to those insulated from the day-to-day effects of mass migration. Yet public concern about high rates of auto-related accidents — because of dangerous pedestrian practices and low seat-belt use — in mainly Mexican immigrant communities such as Santa Ana reflects anxieties about social order not easily dismissed. No matter. Such concerns are routinely dismissed, often with the bromide that immigrants bring changes that “threaten” people — as if they do not pose real challenges.

There are several additional reasons why immigration, legal and illegal, contributes to the sense that things are out of control.

Large concentrations of uneducated, unskilled immigrants struggling to make it in an alien environment clearly put strains on communities. Another factor is that today’s immigrants are disproportionately male — either single or separated from their wives and families. As Los Angeles found out during the 1992 riots, such men are prone to engage in criminal activity when the opportunity arises — more than half of those arrested were Latinos. More routinely, the stresses of working-class immigrant family life — coping with exploitative employers or abusive landlords — contribute to instability and transience. And back when federal immigration agents enforced the law more aggressively, neighborhood raids were another sign of disorder.

Then, too, many immigrants don’t intend to settle in the United States permanently. They expect to work here long enough to save a target amount of money and then return home. For many, such plans change and they end up staying. Yet because a great many immigrants arrive as “target earners” expecting to go back home, they often put up with hardships, even abuses, that would otherwise be less acceptable.

Such instability and transience heighten Californians’ anxieties about immigration. Encouraging immigrants to settle down and become committed members of the community would help relieve them. Beyond driver’s licenses, what other ways are there to give immigrants a greater stake in the communities where they live?

In 2002, the Little Hoover Commission put forward just such a proposal and called it the Golden State Residency Program. It proposed giving immigrants access to a driver’s license, in-state tuition, healthcare, job training and housing. In return, they would stay out of the criminal justice system, pay taxes, learn English, make sure their children attend school and demonstrate a willingness to become citizens. Unfortunately, this proposal and its accompanying study were overshadowed by 9/11. But now that immigration is back at the top of the nation’s agenda, this “broken windows” approach — giving immigrants a stake in their communities — is worth a second look.

This type of program would benefit illegal as well as legal immigrants. But at least it would foster a more explicit and enduring bond than the current precarious relationship between immigrants who are often unsure they want to be here and Americans who are unhappy they are. Of course, the program would need to be backed up with meaningful immigration enforcement — at the border and especially in the workplace.

Unlike President Bush’s proposed guest worker program, a “broken windows” approach to immigration would consider the mobility of immigrants a liability and would try to curtail it. Unlike the typical responses to the immigration controversy that focus on broad, global factors such as labor markets, racism and terrorism, it has the virtue of pointing toward what we could do now. Even so, it won’t be easy.