Citizenship on the cheap
Asked what he thought about illegal immigration, the late singer-politician Sonny Bono replied: "It's illegal." Nowadays, of course, referring to illegal immigration as somehow illegal is considered overly harsh and judgmental, perhaps racist and nativist as well. Better to refurbish one's vocabulary by talking about "undocumented workers," which eliminates that unwelcome hint of lawbreaking.
Since postmodern English is a living language, even "undocumented workers" has come to seem too negative, mostly because of that troublesome "un." So some people have started to use the term "immigrants" to cover both legals and illegals, the point being that there is no important distinction to be made between them. One person who talks this way is Cruz Bustamante, one of the many disappointing candidates for governor in California's recall election. He said that "anyone who works and pays taxes ought to have a right for citizenship." As Mickey Kaus pointed out, this means that anyone who can make it across the border and find a job would qualify for prospective amnesty and full citizenship. There would be no downside to unlawful immigration.
Bustamante was asked by a reporter whether he sees any difference between legals and illegals. He replied, "Have you been out to the fields? I have. I grew up out there." Good point. If I'm ever asked whether breaking into a house is different from walking in the front door as a guest, I intend to say: "Have you ever been out to the Jersey suburbs? I grew up out there."
Compassionate incoherence on this issue is politically mandatory because the Latino vote is in play. Few pols in either party are willing to risk anything by referring positively to any relevant immigration standard or law. In California, the target of the recall election, Gov. Gray Davis, has signed a bill that will grant driver's licenses to illegal aliens. Only a year ago, when his future looked a whole lot brighter, he vetoed a similar bill. The Democrats are calling Arnold Schwarzenegger anti-immigrant for opposing the driver's license law. Schwarzenegger thinks it will blur the line between legal and illegal immigration, invite fraud, and undermine law enforcement. Which it will.
Driver's licenses are available to illegal immigrants in several states. At least 39 states are considering bills on this issue, some in favor of licenses and some opposed. The argument in favor is that the illegals are a fact of life in America, they often need to drive to work, and licensing them will help make sure they get auto insurance. Maybe, but it looks like an attempt to deflect an immigration issue by converting it into a matter of auto safety.
Double standard. The argument against is that issuing driver's licenses to illegals opens the door to more and more privileges rightly reserved for citizens. One is voting. The "motor voter" law of 1993, by tying voter registration to the issuing of driver's licenses, allows illegals to vote. Many vote now. With driver's licenses, they may do so in very large numbers.
More broadly, the driver's license is nearly fatal to the fading distinction between legals and illegals. It is the closest thing we have to a national ID card and opens lots of doors traditionally closed to illegals. It establishes identity for some benefits, employment, and credit. Since many people who enter this country illegally have no way to prove who they are, giving them driver's licenses magnifies security problems. An undercover officer and fraud expert told Fox News, "In California, you can now obtain a gun, explosives, jobs in secure areas--even at a nuclear power plant--with a driver's license."
Another gain for illegals is the campaign to allow them to attend state universities at the in-state resident rate. Allies of the illegals have drummed up a lot of sympathy for students who are illegals and even more sympathy for the children of illegals who were no part of their parents' decision to come here. But these steeply discounted rates were clearly intended for legal residents. It's wrong to give the cheap rate to someone who has no right to be here while an out-of-state U.S. citizen may have to pay four to 10 times as much.
Compassion-driven policies have a cost. While the United States is spending millions to control illegal immigration, many states and localities are working, in effect, to undermine immigration law and to make illegal immigration more attractive and therefore more common. It makes no sense.
This story appears in the September 22, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.