Friday, November 09, 2007

Driving Them Out

Yesterday's Comment is Free piece (full text here below) was the bait to bring out exactly what I described - seems that many commentators were happy to have a class of illegal helots here with no rights.

Xenophobia at the wheel

New York's Democratic governor Eliot Spitzer makes a sensible proposal on driver's licences for immigrants - and promptly hits a red light.
Ian Williams

November 8, 2007 5:30 PM | Printable version

HL Mencken identified puritans as people with "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." It is in the same spirit that American xenophobes are attacking New York governor Eliot Spitzer's eminently sensible proposal to offer immigrants the opportunity to get a state driver's licence even if they don't have a social security number. The xenophobes would rather encourage hit and run driving by unlicensed, uninsured drivers than allow illegals to be in anyway recognised.

There are anywhere between eight to 20 million undocumented immigrants in the US, most of them economically active. Given the size and nature of the country, that means they usually need to drive.

Fulminating vigilantes aside, there is no coherent effort to identify and deport this massive reserve labour army. So the rational question posed by Spitzer, and the rational answer, is that instead of having 20 million untested and uninsured drivers on the roads, each a potential widow-maker and breadwinner-maimer in a country without universal health coverage, they should be able to pass the (very minimal) test of driving competence, and record their addresses and contact details and get insurance.

This is clearly a measure that, apart from being good for the immigrants involved, is good for the society as a whole. But of course it has run into a storm of objections, and even the Democratic primary candidates at the recent debate did not have the spine to stand up for it. Indeed Hillary's tortuously evasive response proved that "Clintonesque" is a gender neutral adjective.

There are indeed complications. In a democracy where an identity card would be rightly seen as an intrusion by the government into the life of citizens, the social security number and the driver's licence have been de facto ID cards for years. In a country where even most legislators did not hold passports when elected, driver's licences are needed to vote, to fly and even to enter most office buildings and the population is broken to the subservient habit because the puritanical raising of the legal age for drinking to 21, accustoms young people to using their licence as proof of age.

The objectors to Spitzer's proposal are in this great puritan tradition of xenophobia. The licence is not a simple proof of ability to move a motor. Rather, it is a "privilege" not to be lavished on illegals. The IRS, always more hardbitten, already makes taxpayer IDs available to immigrants without social security numbers, and the driver licence proposal would encourage even more of them to come forward. I have yet to hear the upsurge of protest against the IRS for extending the "privilege" of tax paying to undocumented immigrants.

If in fact, the objectors had serious plans to rid the country of illegals, they would welcome Spitzer's proposal since it would compile a database of addresses and names of millions of illegals.

Indeed, his compromise, that the the new licences be clearly marked as not valid as an ID would make them even more vulnerable, except that few outside the Ku Klux Klan are really envisaging the uprooting of families and dislocation to the US economy that mass deportations would entail. After all, who would mow the lawn, rake the leaves and plough the snow or wash the dishes for the legislators if that happened?

Spitzer deserves more support for a proposal that is clearly in the common collective interest, and at least ensures a modicum of security and dignity for people who, vigilantes notwithstanding, are here to stay. It seems yet another issue for the Democratic contenders to duck and weave, instead of stand and fight.

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