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Against Class-based Restrictions


Last week Governor Quinn signed a law that sets up a licensing protocol for Illinois drivers who do not have legal immigrant status.    The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights was a driving force behind this bill, and has created this information sheet describing the features and limitation of the Temporary Visitor Driver's License.

I hope that this begins a trend among our legislative bodies to carefully consider the purpose served by any particular license, benefit, or right and whether that purpose is served by restricting it to persons of certain status.

Far too often in our nation's recent history, lawmakers have responded to shocking tragedies by placing sweeping restrictions on entire classes of people who share some characteristics with the perpetrators of horrific acts.  Thus, the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 begat the "REAL ID Act" of 2005.  Since many of the terrorists who planned an implemented the attacks had been living in the United States, they had driver's Licenses from various states.  The logic was that if the terrorists had not been in possession of valid driver's licenses, the plan would have been foiled in some manner.  

Immigrants are not the only class that has been targeted based on the bad acts of a few.  Citizens with any kind of criminal (or even juvenile) record are frequent targets of "get tough" statutes that bar a very broad segment of the population from certain licenses or occupations.  For example, WBEZ recently ran this story on a woman denied a nursing license because she had been arrested at age 13 for getting into a fight at school.  In the wake of Newtown and other mass killings, there is a clamor for restriction on the second amendment rights of the mentally ill, even though research show that few people diagnosed with mental illness commit violent acts, as reported in the New York Times.

Laws that restrict licenses, benefits, and rights by barring some "bad" class of people are appealing to the majority of voters who are personally unaffected by the restrictions.  The moral majority feel safer by restricting the activities of those "bad" people.  However, such restrictions are often targeted at the least powerful people in our society, restricting opportunities for those who have little to begin with.  Also, broad restrictions often paint the errant and unlucky with the same brush as the truly wicked and dangerous.  Creating a desperate, alienated, and disenfranchised underclass makes no one safer and serves no public good.

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