COMMENTARY: I prefer policymaking based on principals and ideals rather than expediency. The reason is that any public policy creates ripple effects. Sure, you solve the problem the policy was designed to solve, but like a rock thrown into a pond, the effects ripple outwards.
New laws redefine who the winners and losers are, throwing the losers into turmoil that begets new policy problems. New laws redefine incentives and alter behaviors in unpredictable and often unwanted ways that — you got it — beget new policy problems.
It’s one of the many reasons I’m a fan of limited government. Government policymaking is always a huge hammer where everything looks like a nail. And all of that smashing around often does more harm than good.
U.S. immigration policy falls victim to these ripple effects. The INA (Immigration and Nationality Act – the governing law of immigration) prioritizes reuniting families over enhancing the workforce. Did you know that it was written that way to keep non-whites out of the country? It was assumed that if you limited immigration to the families of the people already here, the ethnic makeup of the country would remain static.
Well now, just how did that misguided hammer-like policy work out? And the dichotomy continues because what do most without lawful status come to the United States for? To find work.
The driver’s license debate and gun sales
You may have heard that your New Mexico driver’s license is not in compliance with the federal government’s 2005 REAL ID Act. As of now, we’re one of nine states that aren’t. And time is running out to comply to ensure we can use our licenses to do things like enter federal facilities or board commercial planes (scroll down on that above link for an explanation). In November, the Doña Ana County Commission passed a resolution that calls on the governor and the state Legislature to create a two-tier driver’s license identification program. It’s a common idea, used by other states like Maryland, as well as an idea that’s been brought up in the N.M. Legislature for the past few years.
The concept is that citizens and lawful residents get licenses to drive that indicate they are lawfully present as well as residents of a particular state, and everyone else gets I.D. cards that marked in some way as not valid for federal purposes; some versions offer driving privileges too.
It’s been a political issue for quite some time. Since 2003, New Mexico doesn’t require that one verify his or her status to obtain a driver’s license. The justification has been that those without lawful status will drive anyway. Or it’s a way to keep track of non-residents (except how exactly does that work if you don’t know who they are?). Or it enhances safety because more drivers are trained and insured (if that’s what you think driver’s licenses are for – to ensure competency as a driver – you are sadly deluded).
You may know, my family sells guns for a living. We do it via an ATF license that requires us to verify residency. We rely on state driver’s licenses to be proof of identity, proof of state residency, and proof of lawful status in the United States. Think about it; we sell firearms within 55 miles of the border. Proving lawful status is exceptionally important in the firearms business and it frightens me to think that our efforts could be superfluous because if a customer has a New Mexico license, lies about his or her status on the Form 4473, and passes the background check… well then, they get to buy. Background checks won’t always catch it; that system will call out if someone has been arrested/convicted, has an outstanding warrant, or has a documented interaction with la migra. But if someone enters sans inspection and doesn’t run afoul of the police here, then he or she will pass a background check too.
True, lying on a Form 4473 is a felony. But if criminal punishment deterred crime, this country would be a very different place.
Even worse, we all know when there is unevenness in state laws, where one state creates a low barrier to entry for some privilege, it creates things like “driver’s license tourism” where those without lawful status living in other states will come to New Mexico to get a driver’s license. Which can then – due to reciprocity between states – be used to obtain one in another state. Awesome. Even more awesome if they purchased their own personal arsenal before they go back to New York or wherever.
What percentage of folks who use our state’s driver’s licenses to be faux-Americans are actually criminals, engaged in human trafficking or hanging about in terrorist sleeper cells versus the percentage who are just trying to Horatio Alger themselves into a better place? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does.
(Please note: I’m deliberately using the term “without lawful status” and not Mexican or any other identifier. I’m a big fan of lawful Mexican immigration to the United States. I’m a big fan of all work-visa programs to allow Mexicans to work in the United States. It hurts my heart to see Mexicans who are here without lawful status, struggling. My views aren’t borne out of ethnic or cultural prejudice, they are borne out of a respect for the law).
I understand the political expediency of wanting a two-tier system. It solves the REAL ID problem ASAP. It would also actually create an easily trackable database of who is here lawfully and who isn’t; a database that would be very handy indeed for enforcing deportations and other law-enforcement agendas by the by. (Something to think about if you are in favor of helping those without lawful status stay. Remember, all policy solutions create new problems!).
I don’t want to offer identification to people here without lawful status. It offends my sensibilities to support people breaking the law. I say it all of the time: We, as Americans, all we are and have is the rule of law. Our Constitution. No king. No feudal lord. Just laws. That’s it. And if we don’t uphold them, honor them, abide by them, then what do we have? Nothing. We would have nothing. Except a country ripe for takeover by a potentate.
But I’m a realist too. Now that time has run out, go ahead, I guess, and back the two-tier system. Because if I’m forced to support people breaking the law by giving them state identification, and thereby encourage more comers enticed by the privilege, then simultaneously I’m pleased to both have a list of people for our law-enforcement agencies to monitor (and yes, deport) if necessary and possible, and a way to trust that if a customer shows me a New Mexico license, he or she is here lawfully.
Miller is a seasoned communications and government relations expert whose guidance has been relied on by public, private and government organizations alike. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from Claremont Graduate University. Her areas of expertise are issue/crisis management, immigration law, and border issues. Most recently, she was a diplomat with the U.S. State Department serving in Ciudad Juárez. Currently she serves New Mexico as a citizen member of the N.M. Law Enforcement Academy Board. She moved to Las Cruces in 2015 when her husband opened Miller Guns & Ammo.