I was extremely disappointed to learn of Gov. Spitzer's decision not to make driver's licenses available to undocumented immigrants, as well as state Sen. Craig Johnson's opposition to the plan from the start. I believe that making driver's licenses available to everyone - regardless of immigration status - is good policy and makes sense for public safety, national security, economic and moral reasons.
First, like all drivers applying for a license, immigrants would need to demonstrate good driving skills by passing a driving test. [A recent study by AAA found that unlicensed drivers are almost five times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than licensed drivers.] Since people will drive regardless of whether they have a license - forcing them to pass a test helps ensure a baseline of competency.
Second, from a national security standpoint, it is preferable to have as much information as possible about everyone in the country. Allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for licenses would help bring them into the system, as they would have to prove their identity, provide a current address and have their photograph entered into the state's DMV database - a key tool in preventing and investigating crimes. Senator Johnson should not be concerned that undocumented immigrants with a driver's license will be able to obtain state or national benefits that they otherwise are not entitled to receive, as a driver's license does not confirm legal immigration status, which still must be shown to receive such benefits.
Third, according to the NY State Department of Insurance, making driver's licenses available to undocumented immigrants will save NY drivers $120 million each year, through reduced premium costs associated with uninsured motorist coverage.
Finally, although I believe that each of these reasons is enough to support an expanded driver's license program, the main reason I am an enthusiastic supporter is simple - it's the right thing to do. Driver's licenses are symbolic of the larger issue of how immigrants are viewed: either as equal members of our community, deserving of the same respect, justice and dignity that American citizens expect, or as potential criminals and drains on society. One of the reasons I love Port Washington is that it is more diverse and multicultural than most suburbs. Immigrants - legal and undocumented - are our family members, friends, neighbors, employers, employees and colleagues. We depend on them, and they depend on us. And I will support any initiative that seeks to make life a bit easier for them.
I recognize that right now popular opinion is not necessarily behind this idea. However, sometimes leaders have to take a chance and do what is right and not what is politically expedient. I hope that Governor Spitzer will reintroduce this plan and Senator Johnson will reconsider his opposition. And I hope that we can all use this as a starting point for a long overdue conversation on immigration, and as a spark to help us recognize the immigrant rights movement for what it is - the civil rights movement of our time.