Judging by the fevered invective that passes for discourse on this controversial topic, you’d think allowing unlawful immigrants to have driver licenses would open the door to all manner of mischief and chicanery — to say nothing of the fact that “Giving licenses to illegals is wrong! Deport all illegal aliens!” as one commenter on this website declared last month.

In one sense, it is wrong. Entering any nation without signing the guest book is wrong. And when I first heard the idea proposed in other states, it struck me as crazy. After all, why reward someone who has jumped the fence or sneaked past airport security with the legitimacy conferred by a state-issued drivers license? But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

Once the unlawful deed is done, especially when it happens on a massive scale, authorities must deal with it on a practical level. Consuming booze, or as former Sen. John Tower called it, “beverage alcohol,” was wrong from 1920 to 1933. But we dealt with the reality of a law being routinely ignored — not by arresting millions of people, but by changing the law to acknowledge that it wasn’t working.

Except for demagoguing politicians, public officials don’t have the luxury of bloviating and operating in the world of pious absolutes. They must deal with the reality on the ground. And the reality is that tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of undocumented immigrants are driving Connecticut’s roads every day.

That’s not to say the General Assembly’s motives were entirely pure when it passed the law in 2013. The immigrant community and its allies are obviously a very important constituency for the Democrats who dominate the corridors of power at the Capitol. But is it not possible to appease a loyal friend and do the right thing at the same time?

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy put his signature on the bill last year and sign-ups started in December. Since then, about 30,000 people have signed up to take the written portion of the test, according to DMV Commissioner Andres Ayala, who appeared Sunday with Dennis House on Face The State. About 1,200 have taken the test and 1,000 have passed it.

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While the votes of the lawful Latino immigrant community are and were obviously important to Malloy and Ayala, a former state senator, the new law will play a vital role in making our roads safer and in dealing with unauthorized immigrants who get into auto accidents.

If you don’t have a learner’s permit, you can’t take driver education, which means you will know less about the rules of the road than most everyone else. And if you don’t have a license, you can’t buy auto insurance. So what is an undocumented immigrant who needs to travel supposed to do? I can tell you what they do. They buy cheap cars with cash, steal some plates off abandoned cars, slap them on their vehicles, and off they go. When they get into accidents, they have no license and no insurance, so they typically flee the scene, or at least that’s what my police friends tell me.

That’s a raw deal for victims and law enforcement officials charged with investigating accidents and holding the guilty parties accountable. Opponents of the licensing program can complain all they want about the immorality of giving licenses to illegals, but the reality is giving them licenses actually holds them more accountable for their actions than they are now. Wouldn’t immigration hawks prefer more accountability? I certainly do.

“So if anyone is involved in any kind of a fender bender on our highways, there’s no real reason to have to leave the scene of the highway,” Ayala told House. “People can sit there, pass all of their documentation to the trooper that’s there, and people can have their situations taken care of.”

Connecticut joins 11 other states in offering licenses to unauthorized immigrants, including California, where the aptly named Safe and Responsible Drivers Act took effect on New Year’s Day. California, with the largest illegal immigrant population in the nation, expects to issue some 1.4 million licenses this year.

The get-tough approach to licenses reminds me of the get-tough approach to immigration in general. Those who say we should round up the illegals and deport them are living in a fantasy world. There is no practical way we can round up the 10 million to 20 million undocumented immigrants that make up an estimated 5.1 percent of the U.S. workforce, and send them out of the country. And even if we could, who would pick our vegetables, serve our food and mow our lawns?

It would be great if the federal government, which has the exclusive authority to enforce immigration laws, sealed off the border to prevent illegal entry to the U.S. in the first place. But if the feds won’t do their job and the states don’t have the authority to do it for them, what are we supposed to do?

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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