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Undocumented and Unlicensed: Where Inaction on Immigration Reform Has Gotten Us

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If you've been paying attention, there’s no denying that our immigration system needs fixing. For those of you who still need convincing, look no further than The New York Times. An article in today’s paper finds that most of the estimated 4.5 million undocumented immigrants driving regularly in the U.S do not have driver’s licenses.

This is a product of the status quo on immigration, where immigrants without papers trying to get to work or school must drive unlicensed and uninsured.

Only three states—New Mexico, Washington and Utah—offer licenses to undocumented residents, although New Mexico’s new Republican governor has pledged repeal. Obviously, granting driver’s licenses to individuals who aren’t authorized is not an ideal solution. But lack of progress on comprehensive immigration reform has pushed cities and states to take action in addressing some of the challenges, real and imagined, associated with undocumented immigration.

Some localities have embraced more restrictive immigration laws to crack down on unlicensed driving or renting to tenants without legal status. 71 law enforcement agencies have signed up for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 287(g) program, which trains local police officers to enforce federal immigration laws.

In 2009, ICE revamped the program in the interest of focusing immigration enforcement on dangerous and violent criminals. Local officials actually responsible for running the program apparently didn’t get the memo that 287(g) is intended to target dangerous “criminal aliens. Some instead view the program as a means to purge undocumented immigrants from local communities. As the Gwinnett County Sherriff explains, “That’s the point of the program, to remove illegal aliens from Gwinnett County.”

Nationally, at least 30,000 undocumented immigrants stopped for simple traffic violations in the past three years have been put into deportation proceedings.

In Gwinnett County, Georgia, nearly half of the immigrants marked for deportation by the 287(g) program last year were charged with non-DUI traffic violations, including 470 charged with driving without a license. These people can hardly be considered “criminal aliens” that pose a threat to public safety. In reality, most unlicensed immigrant drivers are simply trying to get to work or take their children to school. In Gwinnett and other suburbs across the country, poor transit access makes this nearly impossible without driving.

Without doubt, elected officials who embrace local immigration enforcement vociferously deny that it involves racial profiling. But it’s painfully obvious that these programs disproportionately affect the Latino community. According to The Times, although 48 percent of the immigrants in Gwinnett County are Latino, they were a whopping 93 percent of immigration detainees in local jail last year.

In October, a 27 year-old named Hiram Huerta-Fraga, who came to the U.S. with his father and stepbrother at age 13, was deported from Gwinnett after being pulled over for a brake light violation. His stepbrother Salvador told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that he felt targeted because of his race. Despite his feelings, he said: “I love this country and I want to be here… It's just like playing the lottery every day. You never know when you're going to get pulled over."

It’s hard to see how deporting hardworking, taxpaying, undocumented immigrants for these minor “crimes” benefits our nation’s economy or security. It’s harder still to support these actions when our Congress hasn’t improved the laws governing who can legally enter the country in over twenty years. Fortunately, this week the House took a major step in that direction by passing the DREAM Act.

The DREAM Act would offer a shot at legal status to young immigrants like Salvador. To qualify, applicants must have been brought here at age 16 or earlier, be under the age of 30, lived in the country for five years, pass a criminal background check and get a high school diploma. They also must agree to two years of college or military service.

Next week, the Senate will consider whether to pass the DREAM Act. As our federal and local immigration enforcement policies increasingly target immigrants for minor crimes, this limited measure is an urgent priority. With legal status, immigrants will be able to get better jobs, pay higher taxes and contribute more to our nation’s economy. Crucially, it will also allow thousands of young immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

The DREAM Act is only a drop in the bucket, just one tool needed to clean up the messes that define our national immigration system.