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Are ‘Sanctuary Policies’ a Magnet for Illegal Immigrants?

An Associated Press analysis published over the weekend is breathing new life into the debate about so-called “sanctuary policies” for illegal immigrants. The AP found that in Washington, New Mexico and Utah — the three states where illegal immigrants can get driver’s licenses — more illegal immigrants have sought IDs in recent months, which could mean that more illegal immigrants are moving to these states. Already, some New Mexico lawmakers are using the analysis to try to abolish the state’s policy of allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

After Arizona passed its SB 1070 law, many illegal immigrants fled the state, according to news reports. It was unclear where exactly they went, though experts told TWI they would probably choose new homes based on employment opportunities rather than favorable immigration laws.

But in light of the AP report, local politicians are arguing that driver’s license laws are a draw for illegal immigrants, a New Mexico news channel reported today:

State senator Rod Adair of Roswell, NM, says he saw this coming when he voted the bill down back in 2003.

“We have inadequate safeguards to ensure that the person is a legal resident in the United States,” Adair said. “We made that argument then that we were going to make our state a magnet for illegal immigration.”

Of course, this was not the first mention of banning illegal immigrants from receiving driver’s licenses in New Mexico: The issue comes up frequently in the state’s gubernatorial race. And while “sanctuary cities” don’t really exist, there are differences among states’ and cities’ policies for illegal immigrants, and allowing undocumented people to obtain driver’s licenses is a crucial distinction. The argument is that allowing driver’s licenses means illegal immigrants can buy car insurance, which increases public safety — much like laws in some cities that prohibit employees from questioning immigration status for queries that could impact public health.

“Here in Santa Fe, certainly, immigrants are more likely to stick around if they get into accidents, cooperate in investigations, call the police if they are victims,” Marcela Diaz of Somos Un Pueblo Unido told TWI about New Mexico’s policies. “It really has been a positive thing in Santa Fe.”

In Washington, The News Tribune proposed Tuesday that states change their driver’s license policies rather than flat-out denying licenses to illegal immigrants:

More states may need to adopt a two-tier approach similar to Utah’s. There, drivers who cannot prove their legal status are issued a “driving privilege card,” which permits them access to the roads but cannot be used as identification – not even to buy beer.

Utah’s card has proved popular. The state handed out nearly 44,000 of them in 2008 – and is on pace to issue twice as many this year since it, like Washington, is getting bombarded with immigrants fleeing crackdowns elsewhere.

Apparently, not all illegal immigrants seek drivers’ licenses to game the system. Some really do just want to drive legally. It’s ultimately in a state’s best interests to ensure they can.

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