Friday, September 2, 2011

License to drive, license to thrive

I'll admit it: I don't have a driver's license. Not having a license has been a mere annoyance to me (though admittedly an extreme annoyance to my husband, who constantly feels like he's driving around Miss Daisy). But this would not be merely an annoyance if I had children or lived in a rural community, and it would be downright crippling if I was faced with both.This story in last week's New York Times discusses the issue of driver's licenses in New Mexico, the only state besides Washington that allows undocumented immigrants who are in-state residents to get the same type of driver's license citizens can get. But this won't last long if New Mexico governor Susana Martinez gets her way. 

According to scholar Maria Pabon Lopez, much of the increased fear of issuing driver's licenses stemmed from the fact that the 9/11 hijackers were able to board the planes because they had valid driver's licenses, which, according to the 9/11 and Terrorist Travel report, were collectively obtained from Arizona, California and Florida (along with state ID cards from Maryland, Florida, and Virginia).

However, the past and current discussion for and against giving undocumented immigrants valid driver's licenses fails to address this law's affect on rural communities and individuals. While rural households have greater access to vehicles than urban areas (92.7% vs. 88.9%), they are faced with both a greater need for vehicles and a dearth in public transportation. According to a United States Department of Agriculture Information Bulletin, not only is public transportation only available in 60% of rural counties, 28% of those offer only limited services.

Rural areas are marked by vast spatial distance between services and among residents. In addition, work is increasingly moving away from rural residences. For both undocumented immigrants and citizens in rural communities, not having a car probably means not having a job. Car pools are an option, but they are limited in number and feature logistical limitations. 

Not only do driver's licenses affect them vocationally, lack of licenses will prevent them from providing for their children, receiving access to medical care, and taking care of their elderly relatives. Mother's who are unable to get their children (who very well may be American citizens if they were born in this country) to and from school and doctors appointments or provide them with basic necessities such as food would be deemed negligent by American legal standards and risk losing their children. The New York Times article quotes an immigrant mother who sums up this sentiment perfectly, “How will I take my children to school? ... How can I go to Wal-Mart to get medicine? If you take away our licenses, you take away our lives.”

For those against immigration, the argument of allowing undocumented immigrants to sustain themselves may not be persuasive. It is important to note that the somewhat lenient New Mexico law, that Martinez wants to reverse, was not designed to promote undocumented immigration, but rather to increase rates of car insurance and properly training drivers on driving techniques and traffic laws. 

In rural areas where driving is a necessity, undocumented immigrants who are unable to get a drivers license will be either unable to work (which does not mean that they will leave America but will instead may rely on tax funded welfare services) or they will drive anyway, probably without the necessary training and definitely without insurance. These options are not only detrimental to the American economy, they pose physical and economic danger to Americans. 

In addition, rural areas with declining population are often reliant on cheap immigrant labor. This is especially true of agricultural communities, where immigrant laborers do the hard work that others simply aren't willing to do. Creating barriers on immigrant livelihood in turn creates a barrier on rural livelihood, which is something these communities cannot afford during this Great Recession.


Namora said...

I think it's great a point that revoking laws that allow undocumented immigrants to have licenses will do nothing to dissuade border crossing. The revocation of such laws will only make the struggle to survive harder for those populations already struggling. This is especially true for rural populations. To compound the problem, undocumented immigrants are some of the fastest growing populations in rural areas. Revoking laws that allow such populations to drive will only worsen social and economic stratification. Such stratification poses a burden on all walks of American society.

KevinN said...

The area I grew up in was decidedly suburban but far enough away from most services that commuting was necessary. Having a driver's license and owning a car was essential for anyone wanting to have a job. I think you made a good point about the possibility of people choosing to drive even if they don't have a license and can't get insurance as a result. In that situation, where commuting is absolutely necessary, I'm not sure what other options there are. Even if you know someone with a car and a license, it is highly unlikely that they will always be around to give you a lift when needed. I think that without some exception being made, the problem will exacerbate itself with more and more uninsured drivers in these rural areas.

Courtney Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Courtney Taylor said...

If for no other reason, states should license undocumented immigrants for everyone's safety on the road. The reality is, undocumented immigrants are a necessary part of many agricultural economies and will likely need to drive at some point (particularly if they are living in a rural area). If the ability to obtain a driver's license is not an incentive for coming into the U.S. for work, why not allow undocumented immigrants to take the driver's exam and be issued a license? In theory, when everyone on the road has had some form of driver's education, there will be better drivers and fewer accidents.

oceguera said...

It's unfortunate that immigrant communities are constantly scapegoated for the rising poverty levels and decreasing of public services. Denying access to a license, is essentially denying access to basic human necessities. The urban poor have a hard enough time accessing services with in city limits, now imagine rural communities! Taking away services from communities will only continue to put people at risk and generate an even more vulnerable community. I read laws such as these as human right violations-where a governmental body attempts to wipe itself clean of being held accountable or responsible from the dangerous circumstances a giant portion of it's labor force are forced to be in.

JT said...

Transportation infrastructure seems to be a recurring problem, even in our very own Central California. Fresno, for instance, has dealt with the issue of developing transportation systems for workers living in the rural areas. I'm curious as to whether the rural areas support the development of transportation systems. According to the Fresno County Plan, it "sees its primary role to be the protector of prime agricultural lands, open space, recreational opportunities, and environmental quality, and the coordinator of countywide efforts to promote economic development..." and "seeks to protect its productive agricultural land as the county’s most valuable natural resource and the historical basis of its economy through directing new urban growth to cities and existing unincorporated communities and by limiting the encroachment of incompatible development upon agricultural areas.” Fresno County General Plan (FCGP), p. 8. (
It might be a matter of balancing environmental interests with economic ones.

Azar said...

If you look at this rationally (as you have done in your post!), there really is no debate here at all. There is simply nothing to be gained from taking away licenses from undocumented immigrants. It won't be a deterrent to border crossing, will hurt the economy, and essentially eliminate what is an absolute necessity for many people. Hopefully, bad politics don't get in the way of common sense here.