It is remarkable in this day and age that elected officials will on occasion pursue and enact policies in defiance of public opinion polls. Chalk it up either to courage or to a calculated political move designed to appease a very important constituency in the hope that the majority will forget it by the next election.

Such is the case with the General Assembly’s embrace of legislation permitting unlawful immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Both the Senate and House passed versions of the bill by relatively narrow margins in recent days. After seven hours of often contentious debate, the House passed the bill at the crack of dawn last Thursday, while the Senate took six hours to approve the bill a week later. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has expressed support for the legislation and is sure to sign it shortly when it gets to his desk.

Lawmakers enacted this extraordinary initiative even though a Quinnipiac University poll from March showed Connecticut residents opposed to the measure by a margin of 65-31 percent.

Whether passing the law was an act of bravery or strictly a matter of pandering to a special interest is now irrelevant. It was the right thing to do for a variety of reasons. Connecticut and the nation have a problem with illegal immigration. That problem is compounded when people who are in this country illegally drive illegally. If you can’t obtain a driver’s license, then you cannot register a car or buy insurance for it. Of the 120,000 unlawful immigrants estimated by the Pew Research Center to be residing in Connecticut, about 54,000 are driving on the state’s roads without proper documentation. The presence of tens of thousands of unlicensed drivers on state roads creates obvious hazards.

In a typical traffic accident, both parties stop and wait for police to arrive. Disputes are taken up by the criminal justice system and the insurance companies. But if you’re an unlawful immigrant, you don’t have a license to drive or the required liability insurance for the car. So you flee the scene, leaving the other driver holding the ball, regardless of who was at fault in the accident.

Is this good public policy? Is it in the best interests of licensed drivers to share the roads with so many who are unencumbered by the state laws which the rest of us must obey? This is not a matter of being soft on crime. As Malloy said, there’s a reason why so many municipal police departments — in other words, law-and-order types — support this initiative. It injects an element of accountability into the no-man’s land in which most unlawful immigrants reside.

Of course, the goal should be to reduce illegal immigration in the first place. But it would require an intense and unrelenting focus on border security. And even then, it’s far from clear whether we could succeed in keeping out those who are determined to risk their lives to come here. Many hardliners who say we should seal the border and deport those who are now here illegally don’t understand market economics as well as they think they do.

First, trying to stop illegal immigration will likely be as futile as trying to ban guns, alcohol, drugs, or prostitution. If people want a product, then vendors will be resourceful enough to find a way to get it to them. In the case of illegal immigration, if there are jobs and the promise of a better economic future in the U.S., then immigrants from poor countries will find a way to get here.

Second, the notion that we can round up all unlawful immigrants — estimated by various organizations to be between 10 million to 20 million — and then herd them onto buses and send them back over the border is ludicrous on its face. Conservative columnist George Will did the math and determined that — even if it were logistically possible, which it isn’t — the deportation of 11 million people would require a line of buses stretching from San Diego to Alaska. Mass deportations will never happen and we know it.

As Will pointed out, the majority of unlawful immigrants have children who were born here and are U.S. citizens. Would Americans tolerate the police state required to root out every person here illegally, separate them from their families and send them back to a country such as Mexico, where the murder rate is several times that of the U.S.?

No, I’m afraid we need practical solutions and a path to legality for those who failed to sign the guest book on the way in. And Connecticut’s legislation allowing for drivers licenses is a good first step. Kudos to the General Assembly for taking a step in the right direction, no matter what the motive.

Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.


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