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Many reasons to fix driver's license law

Published 05/10/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 05/09/2013 05:12 PM

Connecticut should join a handful of other states and change its motor vehicle laws so that undocumented immigrants can obtain driver's licenses, and in so doing gain eligibility to register their vehicles.

There are many good reasons to do this.

Most Connecticut cities have large populations of people who came here illegally, some with their parents, others overstayed visas. They survive in the shadows. Unable to register a car, or obtain a license, some will drive unlicensed, sometimes in unregistered cars. That is wrong, certainly, but it is happening and to everyone's detriment.

Providing a means for such individuals to obtain a license and register vehicles would have numerous benefits.

Owners must pay taxes on registered vehicles. That revenue is vitally important to cash-strapped cities. The resulting registration fees would also raise state revenues. And more of these individuals, already using the roads, would be paying more to maintain and police them.

To get a license a person has to get training and demonstrate proficiency. So ending this prohibition to licensing will mean fewer untrained and unsafe drivers on the roads.

A person driving unlicensed in an unregistered motor vehicle, particularly an individual without proper documentation to be in the country, is more likely to leave the scene of an accident. The more that happens, the more everyone's premiums go up. The group Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut - a multi-faith organization of 28 diverse congregations working in support of social and economic justice - estimates that unlicensed immigrants boost auto insurance premiums by $20 million annually in the state.

As state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, rightly noted, preventing so many people from gaining a license, registration and insurance is "not particularly helpful to the rest of us who have to use the road with them."

An estimated 50,000 undocumented immigrants would qualify for licenses.

There are other advantages, not directly linked to driving. A person who can identify herself with a driver's license is more likely to contact police if she sees something wrong or needs help. These immigrants will be able to cash checks, meaning they won't have to continue dealing in large amounts of cash, vulnerable to crime and exploitation.

New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, an advocate for the change in licensing laws, tells us that his city cannot afford to shut out from public life a large portion of its population. This is why, in one of his first acts after his election in November 2011, Mayor Finizio issued an executive order directing police not to inquire about the immigration status of people seeking assistance or reporting a crime (unless tied to a federal investigation). These individuals need to see police officers as a source of help and deserving of their assistance, not as an enemy to fear and avoid, Mayor Finizio said.

It is vitally important for parents, despite a lack of legal resident standing, to feel comfortable enough to be involved in their children's schools and to serve as their advocates. Steps like licensing and the mayor's order make that participation more likely.

There are certainly downsides to taking the licensing step. It can be seen as rewarding those who did not play by the rules (though this would not apply to individuals brought here as children). It would add a layer of legitimacy that is arguably undeserved.

We can dispense, however, with a couple of canards. A license would not allow such individuals to legally vote. To vote you must be a citizen and swear under oath to that fact. State driver's licensing would not interfere, as some claim, with the ability of federal authorities to enforce immigration laws.

On balance, the benefits of allowing licensing prevail.

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