Jose just bought his first car. He's extremely proud of it. He hauls all his friends around and takes great pride in never having to ask for a lift. Because he never drinks, he is the much depended upon designated driver, often making several trips back and forth from the baile or fiesta to make sure his friends all get home safely. Besides offering safe rides to and from fiestas, he drives to work, to Walmart, and to church.
Before he bought the car, he asked me all about how to get insurance, and how to register his car. Jose tries to do things the legal way whenever he can. He showed me his Guatemalan passport, his birth certificate, even his record of baptism. He says he actually entered this country legally initially, but for one reason or another (an expired visa, perhaps), he is no longer legal. He has an international driver's license, which will expire in August 2009. I made some calls and found a place that would insure him, but his, ahem, "status" made everything else questionable.
He wound up insuring and registering his car in another state. Most of the vehicles driven by los indocumentados that I know have plates from that state, too. I don't know if their insurance and registration are legal and valid, but I do know that everyone would be better off if they were.
That's why I was happy to hear that our new governor, Eliot Spitzer, recently gave people in New York who are ineligible for social security numbers the opportunity to apply for a driver's license. Jose was thrilled, too, but his first question to me was whether he would be safe in going to the DMV to apply for a license, even though, like many illegal immigrants, he ignored an order to appear in court a while back out of fear of deportation.
Living a quiet and otherwise law-abiding life, he opted to disappear into the shadows like so many others rather than risk being deported. Deportation would mean weeks or months in jail, then being returned to Guatemala empty handed, losing all the time spent and the thousands of dollars he paid for the privilege of living and working here.
There has been a very vocal outcry against Spitzer's new law by the fearful and ignorant. One popular argument against it is that people who are ineligible to vote would be able to show their new licenses and vote anyway. Silly, since you can't just stroll into a polling station, flash your license and vote, without first being a registered voter. Others claim that allowing illegal immigrants to get licenses would entice them to come to New York. From what I have seen, the only thing that truly entices them to go to one place over another is the availability of jobs, and the possibility of working at those jobs, saving money, and living in relative security.
There are also arguments about terrorism, of course, in spite of the fact that not having New York State driver's licenses did not stop the Saudis who boarded planes on September 11, 2001. Opponents to Spitzer's bill claim that allowing people who are otherwise undocumented to have driver's licenses would compromise our security, although in reality, the licenses would facilitate the tracking and capture of criminals.
It's unclear to me if Spitzer's opponents can do anything to rescind the bill now that it has passed. Many of the benefits - fewer unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the road, and a way of documenting the undocumented (not legalizing their status, but bringing people "out of the shadows" to be counted, taxed, and tracked)- seem to actually favor the desires of those who express their disapproval of "illegulz."
For those of us who try and support the efforts of indocumentados to live successful lives here and avoid trouble in the process, their access to driver's licenses means more accountability for them, greater autonomy, and greater participation in this society of which they are a part. While it will make it harder for them to hide, it will also make it less necessary for them to do so.
UPDATE: Damn it.