Our View: Driver's license change needs consideration
Legislation to bring Minnesota into compliance with federal Real ID standards was brought to a standstill when House members inserted language prohibiting undocumented immigrants from obtaining Minnesota driver's licenses.
It's unfortunate the issue was introduced for two reasons. First, because it barred progress toward Real ID compliance required by the Department of Homeland Security. Without compliance, Minnesotans cannot access secure federal facilities and military bases using today's standard state ID.
If the Legislature continues its backward approach to productivity, Minnesotans will not be able to board domestic commercial flights without an enhanced ID starting in January 2018.
The second reason we wish the issue had been left out of Real ID legislation is because it deserves an up or down vote on its own merits.
Proponents of issuing state licenses to undocumented immigrants, including Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson, contend that granting driver's licenses to undocumented workers would lead to safer roads and more insured drivers. We depend on other drivers to have proper training and insurance, but the system precludes a significant number of people behind the wheel from getting either.
"So what we have, potentially in this country is 12 million to 14 million people that don't have, or cannot get, driver's licenses," Peterson said. "It doesn't mean that they don't have to drive."
Less obvious benefits exist, as well. We have written before about the corrosive effect of overwhelming court scheduling on Rochester's police department. Some of that clog comes from people driving without licenses or insurance, including undocumented workers who go into the court system for violations that exist solely because there is no option to comply.
"The problem being that if there's no opportunity for compliance, you're not eliminating the problem; you're just criminalizing behavior," Peterson said.
Driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants would allow them to move through the court system just like anyone else cited for traffic violations, which would free up space in jail cells and eliminate wasted time. The measure also could improve relations between law enforcement and immigrant communities.
The Rochester Police Department does not have any authority to enforce immigration laws. That responsibility falls to the federal agency Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE).
Because there is nothing police officers can do, local department policy states officers do not inquire about immigration status or ask for documentation. It allows them to connect better to those who might fear law enforcement.
Still, the fear of encountering ICE agents keeps many undocumented workers ill at ease when police are present, even when they are victims needing help.
"We would be an awful lot further ahead in terms of building the kind of relationships we need with these communities if we offered them a viable option as opposed to just saying, 'No, you're going to have to violate the law and roll the dice every time you go to work, because you need to feed your family and there is no viable option for you,'" Peterson said. "I think the best thing we could do is start offering viable options and hopefully that would build some confidence for people."
Combined with clearing a path to Real ID compliance, that makes consideration of legislative changes worthwhile.