ANALYSIS: Peterson’s Immigration Passion Play

Immigration hearing.

TRENTON – Few things rev up passion as much as terrorism and illegal immigration.

So it was probably no surprise Monday that Assemblyman Erik Peterson, an opponent of granting driver’s licenses to those here illegally, quickly linked them together. First the Republican from Hunterdon County put down his foundation, asking Brenda “Sue” Fulton, the head of the state Motor Vehicle Commission, if the bill would allow the undocumented to drive tractor-trailers.  The query seemed a bit silly and Fulton discounted it, saying that such licenses are governed by federal law.

But then Peterson got to his real point. He wondered if the bill would allow an undocumented individual “to rent a truck,” for nefarious purposes – just like the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

There were loud groans from the jam-packed hearing room despite the pleas of Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, the Judiciary Committee Chairperson, to maintain decorum. (At least no one was dragged out of the hearing by the State Police).

On one hand, introducing the threat of a terror attack into the proceedings was either a brilliant or dastardly move depending on your point of view. It was also transparently selective. Peterson could have mentioned the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, – a far more destructive and deadly event than the first trade center attack. A rented truck was used in that attack, but since the perpetrators were not in this country illegally, that 1995 episode didn’t fit Peterson’s agenda.

Peterson by the way was the only vocal opponent to the bill on the committee. Fellow Republican Michael Patrick Carroll, normally a loquacious type, also voted no, but he left early and made no comments during the hearing.

The room at today's immigration hearing.
The room at today’s immigration hearing.

Peterson also raised concerns about voter fraud, which is a common Republican talking point. Given the fact the MVC registers voters, would it be possible for an undocumented individual to get a driver’s license and then vote?  In the grand scheme of life, just about everything is possible, one supposes.

But as Fulton and others explained, the state already grants driver’s licenses to those ineligible to vote, including non-citizens here legally and those 17-years-old. And that doesn’t mean that they vote.
Opponents, at least with the Assembly Committee, were not going to get anywhere. The Democrats are in control and when about three-plus hours of testimony ended, they released the bill to the floor. No surprise there.

Another problem for opponents going forward is the simple fact that logic is not on their side. More than a dozen states grant such licenses already. including Utah, not exactly a liberal bastion.

It is impossible to question the fact that many people here illegally drive on New Jersey roads every day.

And doing something about that hardly falls within the purview of the New Jersey Assembly.

Those who drive illegally have no license, which means they took no driver’s test. More importantly, they have no insurance. Give people a license and they must first take a test and would be required to carry insurance. If they get caught driving without insurance, they would face the same penalty as any other driver without insurance. Clearly, this is a safety and monetary issue.

It was no surprise that most of the speakers supported the bill. And as is the norm in such cases, there were emotional tales about the fear of driving without a license and the peril that could arise if people  were stopped by police for whatever reason.

One speaker quoted Ronald Reagan saying in effect that people who come to the United States soon become Americans whereas those who relocate to France or Japan are never considered French or Japanese. These are strange times indeed when you hear left  wingers quoting Reagan.

Some opponents spoke as well. There was a concern that the bill as written could help child traffickers, which is something Quijano said the committee would look into. There was also a concern that the granting of driver’s licenses could entice more undocumented individuals to come New Jersey as opposed to a less enlightened state. That sounds theoretically feasible, but let’s keep in mind, people likely come here for jobs, not to drive a car legally.

In the end, Peterson cited a need to uphold the rule of law.

That seems like an ironclad position, but is it really? Laws change all the time.

The most interesting thing ahead is whether this law truly will change.

As we have seen over the last two years, there is a reluctance of some Democratic lawmakers to support progressive issues. Two that immediately come to mind are the so-called millionaire’s tax and legalization of marijuana. Notwithstanding the committee’s vote on Monday, you have to wonder if we will see more of the same with this issue.

I can’t help but remember attending a pro-driver’s license protest a few weeks ago outside the legislative office of Speaker Craig Coughlin. The speaker wasn’t there, but his staff kept the doors locked and refused to engage with the protesters. Not exactly an endorsement.

There was loud applause from supporters of the bill after today’s vote. But it would be overly optimistic for anyone to think this battle is over.

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  • Peter J

    Is giving a DL to someone who is already driving without one illegally or without insurance going to change their behavior? Do any of these immigrants have the 6 points of ID that all legal residents are required to provide?
    I would guess not on both counts.

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