WASHINGTON -- When Hillary Clinton fumbled a recent debate question about New York's plan to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, she helped clarify at least one issue that keeps getting muddied: Illegal immigrants are illegal.
Why, then, are we granting them driver's licenses?
Thus far, eight states allow illegal immigrants to receive licenses or permits (and 10 states offer in-state tuition) -- all in the spirit of making America a better place.
But we don't want to encourage immigrants to come here illegally.
The illegal immigrant problem is huge, obviously, and there's no single solution. But there is one word that would get the ball rolling in the right direction and win a lot of voters' hearts: disincentivize. Stop making it so attractive to slip through, over and under the border.
As long as we offer jobs, medical treatment, driver's licenses and in-state tuition to those who come here illegally, why would any right-thinking, would-be immigrant take a number and wait his turn? Why not just throw in the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and free tequila while we're at it?
Arguments favoring services and privileges for illegal immigrants always point to the broader benefits to society. Healthy immigrants mean a healthier America; an educated populace means fewer jobless dependents; legal drivers are more responsible because, allegedly, they'll also buy insurance and stick around when they have an accident.
The latter seems unconvincing given that illegal immigrants, by definition, tend not to think legally. In any case, by the same logic, we might also say that amnesty is good for the country because then everyone would be legal. Rather than fix something, we simply accommodate circumstances. As in: Kids are having sex anyway, so we'll just give them condoms.
Advocates for licensing also argue that illegal immigrants can't get jobs without a driver's license. Do I hear bingo? Isn't that the point?
On the one hand, we argue that employers should be penalized for hiring illegal immigrants; on the other, we insist that the immigrants need driver's licenses because employers demand them. I'm beginning to see how Clinton got so tangled up. You cannot argue rationally in defense of the irrational.
The Monday morning quarterback is, of course, a brilliant seer and the stands are filled with hindsight prophets this week. Here's one more shoulda for the pile-on. When NBC's Tim Russert asked why she thought New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to give illegal immigrants driver's licenses made sense, Clinton should have simply said:
"It makes sense for states to seek solutions given the federal government's failure to reform immigration, but I'm not 100 percent satisfied with the licensing plan. Unfortunately, Tim, I'll need more than 30 seconds to outline my concerns."
Or something to that effect. Instead, Clinton called for immigration reform. It's easy to say we need reform. Everybody agrees with that. It's much harder to say we need to stop rewarding "illegal."
Clinton even refused to use the term "illegal immigrant," preferring the blander "undocumented worker," as though people who cross our border illegally are just like the rest of us except for those darned documents. They may be nice, hard-working people, but they're not like other immigrants who, having come here legally, have demonstrated a commitment to the rule of law and fairness.
Surely, we can love our neighbors and be a pro-immigrant nation without granting de facto citizenship to illegal immigrants through a menu of rights and privileges. As is, all that's missing is the oath -- and any meaning attached to it.
Beyond principle, there are practical reasons for denying licenses to illegal immigrants. As some reformers have pointed out, the driver's license is more than a permit to drive. It's a nationally recognized ID that implies citizenship, and is the most coveted "breeder document" of terrorists because it allows them access to all the other things they need to blend in -- jobs, housing, bank accounts -- as well as access to commercial airplanes and rental cars.
Many states still don't verify applicants' identities. In May 2001, when Tennessee dropped its requirement that applicants supply a Social Security number, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants applied for licenses, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
There may be no way to solve every aspect of the immigration problem. Certainly, no serious person thinks we can round up 12 million people and deport them. But it would be refreshing if we began to take seriously what it means to be a citizen and stop making it so attractive to be a lawbreaker. That would make sense.