Who cares about illegal immigrants and their drivers licenses?

Seriously, I’m asking. Because at a time when more and more money is
getting dumped into a political system doing less and less for working
Americans, are the driving habits of undocumented immigrants really
that important?

They are if you’re looking for a distraction.

“When you’re governing in a time of economic problems, you don’t want
people focused on it,” said Marcela Diaz of Somos Un Pueblo Unido. “If
you can distract people with emotional, hotly charged issues, you gain
with your base and demoralize other voters because their candidates
aren’t standing up for them.”

Diaz has spent years working on this specific issue. Her organization
helped draft the law in 2003 which made it possible for immigrants to
get licenses without social security numbers, and they’ve been out in
front against Gov. Susana Martinez in her effort to repeal that law.

She does, however, concede this: “Frankly, people don’t care about this issue.”

Normal people, she means. For political animals like Gov. Martinez,
it’s good at stirring up press and anger despite not actually being of
any real significance. And that leads to blowback from groups like
Somos, because repealing a law allowing drivers licenses to illegal
immigrants, as Diaz sees it, “it’s hiding what’s truly the issue here,
and that is just xenophobia and distrust of foreigners.”

Think about the arguments for and against.

Diaz said illegal immigrants should have licenses because it ensures
they are on the road after passing tests including eye and driving
exams. Licenses are also required to get car insurance.

“When someone thinks about literally driving their children to
school,” she said, “they want to make sure everyone on the road is
licensed, insured, and accountable in the way other people are.”

Getting a license also makes you easier to police. Law enforcement use
drivers licenses to maintain a system which easily tells them what a
person’s arrest and driving history includes. Having undocumented
immigrants in that system makes sense, Diaz says.

What’s the argument against? Fraud, according to the governor.
Numerous individuals have been caught bringing foreigners to New
Mexico so they can get licenses.

That argument is seen as strong enough to fight over, though the math
is puzzling. Hundreds of people may be using New Mexico to
fraudulently acquire drivers licenses, but there are thousands of
undocumented immigrants who drive on our streets. Why would ensuring
those people are safe drivers be less important than stopping the
occasional phony ID ring?

Politics. Duh.

“We are the lowest-hanging fruit,” Diaz said. “Being anti-illegal
immigrant is an easy attention getter. It’s an easy vote getter.”

It’s a wedge issue, she says, dividing voters. Conservatives like a
candidate who fights fiercely against illegal immigration. And while
latino voters are a growing and important electorate, no liberals are
willing to fight for them with the same voracity as those fighting
against them, so the group becomes disaffected and unenthusiastic with

This helps explain why Martinez has had her sights set on repealing
this law since she was a candidate.

“Imagine the first Latina Republican governor passing anti-immigrant
legislation,” Diaz said. “Winning in a state with a democratically
controlled legislature. That would be a huge win for her. That puts
her on the map.”

While this continues being debated in New Mexico, there are champions
elsewhere to give illegal immigrants licenses. Diaz said Friday she
testified by phone at the Vermont legislature, where lawmakers are
considering a similar measure.

“They’re considering moving toward a bill that would grant (licenses
to) farm workers, regardless of immigration status,” she said.
“Farming is such an important industry there.”

California and Colorado, also, are seeing support grow to let illegal
immigrants get licenses (currently, only New Mexico, Utah and
Washington let illegal immigrants get licenses).

The chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Charlie Beck, recently
said he is in favor of licensing illegal immigrants, who make up a
disproportionate number of uninsured drivers in California.

Politicians, though, can’t help but reach for low-hanging fruit, so
groups like Somos spend their time fighting ideologues who target
their communities for purely political reasons.

“It’s not about drivers licenses,” Diaz said. “It’s an attack on our
integrity, when all we’re doing is working. Politicians will put theirpolitical careers over the public good.”

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