Recently I was jogging with my nephew Manny in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood when I spotted a "teachable moment" for my nephew, a student at DePaul. We came to an abrupt halt upon watching two plainclothes policemen stop a Hispanic couple for not moving fast enough when the traffic light turned green. The driver, incidentally, fit the stereotype of an immigrant Mexican: A brown-skinned man in a large, older model car with chrome rims.
I wanted my nephew to observe, firsthand, how some law enforcement officers can be overzealous--or even abusive with immigrants--so we stood and watched as the officers drew their guns and pointed them directly and only inches from the couple's faces. They were then literally dragged out of their car, handcuffed, and thrown on the ground. After searching the vehicle and a brisk frisk and dressing down, the officers left, but not before leaving the car on and locking the couple out of the car.
Keeping a respectful distance so as not to be accused of obstructing justice, I felt free to approach the couple, who did not speak English (and thus had little notion of what had just transpired). Their crime, it turns out, was driving without a license and failure to provide proof insurance.
Not a week goes by that I don't receive a few calls from people such as this couple who have been cited to appear in court for the same violations. One of the attorneys from my firm will appear with the client before the court with little or no defense, and watch as the judge slaps the client on the wrist, imposes a minor fine, and observes as the clients often drives off in his car.
This scene is played out thousands of times every year in Illinois and around the country. The only difference is that in a few other states legislators have solved this problem in a very sensible and logical fashion: Allow undocumented aliens to apply for a driver's license and consequently be eligible for drivers insurance, as well. The few enlightened states, which include Utah, North Carolina, and Tennessee (hardly bastions of liberalism) have correctly concluded that the issue is not whether undocumented immigrants would be legitimized by being allowed to apply for a driver's license, as shortsighted people contend, but that it is, more importantly, a matter of public safety.
Because untold thousands of undocumented aliens are not allowed to apply for a driver's license, our streets and highways are filled with people who, first, have not been given proper training regarding the rules of the road, and second, are not covered by insurance to protect others--and themselves--in case of an accident. What many (perhaps because of xenophobic reasons or because of plain ignorance) do not realize is that while this situation continues, every person's life is placed in grave danger everyday. If for whatever reason an insurance company refuses or cannot cover an individual after an accident with an uninsured, undocumented alien, that individual may suffer serious economic hardship. And he has no recourse against anyone other than an individual who most likely is indigent.
If legislation passes in Illinois to allow driving privileges to the undocumented, this would not be the only instance in which these individuals are allowed to fulfill their obligations to the state and country. Opponents of this legislation need only look to he Internal Revenue Service, which has for years allowed undocumented aliens to file their tax returns by issuing them temporary identification numbers. It makes perfect sense: If these individuals--approximately seven million around the country--live here, they may as well pay their taxes.
While the argument that authorizing driver's licenses legitimizes undocumented workers at first blush appears to be sound, one should consider that this has already been accomplished by the use of consular identification cards that are now accepted by all banks for the purpose of permitting undocumented aliens to open accounts. Moreover, after 9/11 it has become imperative that our state and country have a system of identifying everyone who lives in this country.
Ironically, after 9/11 it also became very difficult to even attempt to pass this kind of legislation. This type of bill was drafted but was prudently shelved by Rep. William Delgado of Chicago shortly after the tragedy in New York, given the strong anti-immigrant wave that hit our country. Only recently has he revived it and at the time of this writing it is once again enjoying serious consideration in Springfield.
Yet Rep. Delgado is not alone in this effort. He is joined by a chorus of chiefs of police from around the state and even judges. In fact, the chief of the traffic division in Cook County has gone on record endorsing this legislation. It is common sense. It is a matter of public safety.
The time has come for Illinois to be counted among the enlightened. Undocumented aliens should be required to learn the rules of the road, then allowed to apply for a driver's license and obtain insurance. This will make the roads safer for all of us and may even bring our insurance premiums down. Perhaps then we will also see an end to the abuse Manny and I witnessed that late night we were jogging, and those kinds of teachable moments won't be necessary anymore.
Jorge Montes is the principal of Montes & Associates in Chicago. He is also a member of the Prisoner Review Board. He is currently the secretary of the Standing Committee on Minorities and Women Participation.