Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Giving drivers licenses to ‘illegal immigrants’ is absurd, but not for the reason you may think

Marcos Breton
Marcos Breton

Undocumented immigrants will have driver’s licenses in California, and it’s about damn time.

If that statement makes you angry, please direct your wrath in the right direction. Call your congressional representative and demand national immigration reform.

Don’t get mad at the immigrant, the little guy at the bottom of the food chain who is here doing jobs that you won’t. Don’t hate the college kid who was brought here without documentation as a child and now can’t contribute fully to the only country he or she has ever known.

In truth, it’s absurd that it’s even come to this.

But in the absence of federal immigration reform conferring legal status on workers that California needs, granting driver’s licenses to the undocumented is a nod by California legislators toward economic reality and human decency.

“Hopefully, (this bill) will send a strong message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due,” Gov. Jerry Brown said late Thursday.

It would be better if there were enough work visas to account for immigrant employees in California agriculture, but there aren’t. It would be better if the federal DREAM Act hadn’t died before reaching President Barack Obama’s desk and that a pathway to citizenship was available for young people brought to America as children without proper documentation. But it did die, and exceptional youths who excel in our colleges now cannot put their training to proper use because, well, they are undocumented.

Fixing this and everything else related to immigration would be good for the American economy, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the U.S Chamber of Commerce, the California Farm Bureau Federation and economists not driven by anti-immigrant animus.

“The U.S. Senate immigration bill has ignited a debate over the fiscal costs of reform, with some conservatives claiming costs far exceed the benefits,” wrote the Wall Street Journal editorial board – not exactly a liberal outfit. “We think that’s wrong, and one place to look for evidence is the costliest of all federal programs, Social Security. As some 75million baby boomers prepare to retire, immigrants will be crucial to keeping the federal pension program afloat.”

How? “These facts are confirmed in the report of the Social Security trustees,” the Journal wrote. “They conclude that the program’s long-term funding shortfall ‘decreases with an increase in net immigration because immigration occurs at relatively young ages, thereby increasing the numbers of covered workers earlier than the numbers of beneficiaries.’”

Moreover, the proposed fix for immigration is not “amnesty.”

An immigration reform bill that passed in the Senate but stalled in the GOP-controlled House would allow farmworkers a chance to obtain temporary legal status if they had no criminal record and could prove they had worked extensively in California’s fields.

If farmworkers passed all their background checks, paid back taxes and a fine – and if they stayed out of trouble and kept working in agriculture for five years – they could be eligible for permanent legal status at the end of those five years. They wouldn’t be eligible for citizenship for another five years after that. That’s 10 years of waiting before earning the chance to become American citizens.

In the Senate bill, you can’t obtain legal status and can be deported if convicted for an offense involving gang activity. Remaining in the United States is tied to staying out of trouble with the law. How is any of this amnesty?

“The general public says it’s time to solve this issue so let’s solve it,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

In the Senate bill, none of the estimated 11million undocumented immigrants in America could complete the legalization process until an already beefed-up U.S.-Mexico border is fortified further.

“The Department of Homeland Security must certify that the Comprehensive Southern Border Security Strategy is deployed and operational, 700 miles of fencing is complete, 38,405 border patrol agents are deployed, and the E-Verify employment verification system is in place,” wrote the Washington D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center in an analysis of the Senate’s immigration bill.

But because House Republicans seem to fear a backlash from their base, sound economic policy and human decency may have to wait.

So the California Legislature acted, joining nine states and the District of Columbia, which already have allowed the undocumented to obtain driver’s licenses. And even then, the driver’s licenses that will be utilized by California’s undocumented can only be used for driving. The licenses will have special marks on them to prevent them from being used to obtain federal benefits or to vote or access other freedoms we take for granted.

All the licenses do is grant people who are here the dignity to drive legally and buy car insurance. It should have happened years ago.

Curiously, while most California Republicans opposed the driver’s license bill, many remained silent as it was passed. Cowards.

GOP legislators know that immigrants are needed in California. They know – or should know – that there aren’t enough legal visas to satisfy the demand for California labor. They must know that all the rhetoric about how the undocumented should go “stand in line” somewhere before coming here legally is pure hogwash. In the real world, there is no line for undocumented workers to stand in so enough of them can perform the work required by California’s economy.

So the California Legislature acted. Gil Cedillo, the former state legislator from Los Angeles, deserves much credit for tirelessly pursuing this issue for years. So does Watsonville Assemblyman Luis Alejo, who sponsored the driver’s license bill.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg also played a huge role. “The whole purpose of this bill is to end insidious discrimination,” he said.

It’s a great sentiment, but Steinberg and his colleagues know it won’t be true until immigration reform is fixed once and for all.