Thursday, November 01, 2007

Poetic License

For my part, my position on undocumented workers has always been clear: immigrants are the single biggest economic engine this country has ever had, bigger even than the westward expansion (which was caused and created mostly by immigrants wasn't white Anglo-Saxons saying "there goes the neighborhood").

Ergo, any unnecessary restriction on immigration in my book is stupid, nevermind unenforceable. For the record, I am first-and-a-half generation American.

Comes Tuesday's debate, where Hillary was lambasted for giving a realistic, practical answer, if clumsily worded and even more clumsily defended later on, where it appeared she flip flopped on Eliot Spitzer's licensing plan for immigrants. Under his plan, which was defeated by the state Senate, undocumented immigrant workers would be allowed to obtain driver's licenses.

There's an awful lot of sense here, even if at first blush it seems unpalatable to people who don't share such a generous view about immigration as I do: encouraging them to get legal documentation to drive means they'll be more likely to purchase insurance for their driving, and that means a smaller insurance hit to the rest of us. As it is, they can't buy insurance.

If even a small percentage of "undocumentarians" get their licenses, we've made some headway against one of the more intractable problems of this issue: the costs to society.

Since Congress has abrogated its responsibility on the issue, as Hillary took pains to point out during the debate, Spitzer's plan makes an awful lot of sense. You're not giving anything away to anyone, but you are giving something back to the people who were here first: more security.

Obviously, if Congress later decides to take a stronger anti-immigration stance, Spitzer's plan can close up shop quickly. No harm, no foul.

So what this argument really is all about is the perception that, by having a driver's license, you are making an undocumented worker more American by making him more documented.

Rubbish. A driver's license is not a replacement for a tourist visa, much less a work permit or a green card. And now that the State Department has initiated a "passports for all international travelers" policy, it's not even like a driver's license will get you back into the country at the border.

When most people think of undocumented workers, they think of the day laborers at the corner 7-11 or gas station, waiting for pick up to a menial job (that pays so little, you couldn't get an American to do it anyway).

But many undocumented workers have been here for decades. They own & run businesses: bars, dry cleaners, subcontractors for the construction trades, vegetable stands, restaurants, newspaper delivery services, daycare, private school buses.

In other words, they already drive with the risk of knowing that even one accident can drive them out of business, and knowing that one accident will be unrecoverable to the person or property owner that is damaged.

And they contribute to society, especially to the economy. Believe it or not, they DO pay some taxes: sales tax, for example, or gasoline taxes.

Now, I'm not proposing throwing the borders wide open to anyone who has the gumption to clamber across, or throw out the visa program and let people stay as long as they like. We need some form of bouncer standing there, deciding who can and can't come in: who's going to add to our society while tossing those who means us harm.

But lets not blame immigrants for our own paranoia.