Friday, July 02, 2004 | 07/02/2004 | Which state gets the importance of illegal immigrants? | 07/02/2004 | Which state gets the importance of illegal immigrants?

Friday, Jul 02, 2004
Which state gets the importance of illegal immigrants?


By Joe Rodriguez

Note to John Kerry, George W. Bush and, while we're at it, let's cc Arnold Schwarzenegger:

Everybody thinks Al Gore isn't president today because he lost Florida four years ago. Wrong! He lost because he lost Tennessee, his home state. Had the Wooden One stuck closer to home he might have carried Missouri or Kentucky, too. So pay attention to what's happening in Tennessee.

Tennessee has decided to allow illegal immigrants to drive legally.

Not California, home to half of the nation's estimated 4 million or 6 million or 8 million undocumented immigrants. Not Texas, New York, Arizona or any other popular port of entry for future dishwashers, nannies, drywallers and gardeners.

I once drove across the entire Volunteer state, which takes a whole day. Not once did anyone complain to me about illegal immigrants. I get that all the time in California, where they're blamed for everything from freeway congestion to sinking the schools. I had no idea the undocumented had found their way to Tennessee. Gives new meaning to the term ``border state.''

But they are more realistic and practical about the problem in Tennessee. Lawmakers there recently approved the ``certificate of driving'' for people who can't prove they're U.S. citizens or lawful, permanent residents.

``I don't think there was ever the intention to round up every illegal (resident) in the state,'' said state Sen. Bill Ketron, a Republican. ``We don't have enough jail space for that.''

After weighing the pros -- illegal immigrants work grunt jobs nobody else wants, jobs they can't get to on public transportation because there isn't enough public transportation . . .

And after weighing the cons -- rewarding these lawbreakers insults legal immigrants, dilutes American citizenship and encourages terrorists to masquerade as illegal immigrants . . .

Tennessee decided on a wonderful compromise: A certificate of driving that can't be used for formal identification. For example, it can't be used for buying an airline ticket. At least for now, the insurance lobby isn't sold on the idea. But don't worry. It'll come around once the companies see that illegal immigrants don't drive any better or worse and that there's money in it.

A similar proposal by California Gov. Schwarzenegger to put a distinct mark on state driver's licenses ran into a liberal wall recently. Some worried it smacked of the Stars of David that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany, or would lead hospitals and other public institutions to treat the undocumented or their children differently.

What this over-the-top fear doesn't account for are other forms of identification available to the undocumented, especially the IDs available from foreign consulates.

Personally, I'd give illegal immigrants regular driver's licenses so long as they pass stiffer background checks than we give to postal workers.

A few months ago, I rode around town with an illegal immigrant. She told me it didn't matter what kind of driver's permit she could get so long as she could drive legally and buy auto insurance.

So far, Democratic candidate John Kerry opposes giving driving privileges to illegal immigrants because ``that defeats the purpose of the law.'' OK, so does letting illegal immigrant children stay in school, but we aren't cruel enough to throw them out. To my knowledge, President Bush hasn't clearly stated his position on undocumented driving.

I know what question I'd ask Kerry and Bush during their upcoming debates: Do you know what's happening in Tennessee, and do you agree or disagree?

JOE RODRIGUEZ'S column appears on Tuesday and Friday. Contact him at (408) 920-5767 or


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