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State laxity on immigration invites voter backlash

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 2, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
February 2, 2011 5:29 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

A sobering number from the Pew Research Center: Over the last three years, the number of illegal immigrants in Washington has jumped by 35 percent.

During the same period, the number of illegal immigrants was falling in the rest of the United States, as many of them lost jobs and headed home.

The Pew numbers – based on analysis of U.S. Census data – corroborate an abundance of evidence that Washington has become an oasis of sorts for people without legal residency.

No real surprise there. The state government is unusually hospitable to illegal immigrants – sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for no reason beyond politics.

A good reason: The simple decency of providing health insurance and adequate nutrition to undocumented children – who had no say in a parent’s decision to sneak into the country.

Not so good: The state’s apparently politically driven reluctance to cooperate with a federal push to intercept illegal-immigrant criminal suspects at the point of arrest.

Backed by Congress, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is asking states for fingerprint metrics of arrestees so it can identify those who overstayed visas or otherwise ran afoul of federal immigration law.

State officials could pass on the metrics with no effort or expense. They won’t.
Also not so good is the state’s insistence on issuing standard driver’s licenses to applicants regardless of legal status.

Forty-seven states do not license illegal immigrants, period. One – Utah – issues licenses that are not valid for identification. Only Washington and New Mexico refuse to make any distinction whatsoever between legal and illegal.

One result, as reported by the Associated Press last August, is a surge in immigrants from elsewhere seeking licenses here. Frequently, they return to their home states and use the Washington licenses to fraudulently obtain other documentation.

Advocates of Washington’s all-but-unique laxity say the policy helps keep unlicensed and unqualified drivers off the road. There’s precious little hard evidence of that. In any case, adopting Utah’s double-tiered system would still keep licenses available to anyone. Lawmakers are considering such a measure this session; they should pass it.

Even for illegal immigrants and their champions, there’s a big potential downside to turning the state into a mecca for the undocumented. It’s called backlash. If the governor and Legislature insist on exceptionally liberal policies on illegal immigration, the citizens may well respond with exceptionally harsh initiatives.

Anti-immigration activists have repeatedly pushed ballot measures that would deny social services – including health care – to all undocumented adults and children. Many also want an Arizona-style law that would require all local police to serve as de facto Border Patrol agents.

Washington should not follow Arizona’s lead, but it also shouldn’t be an outlier in enabling illegal immigration. Something in between would do just fine.

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