There are reasons to be squeamish about the new "temporary visitor" licenses and ID cards that the Department of Public Safety now issues to legal immigrants. There are also strong justifications, and, on balance, they outweigh the drawbacks.
The vertical layout of the new card is designed to distinguish its holder as someone deserving of extra scrutiny, which doesn't sit well with many people. Immigrants might feel they're getting a mixed message. We tell them to assimilate, but we issue them a special ID that says: You're not one of us.
Yet this new format and the security measures behind it are necessary. There are 12 million or more illegal immigrants residing in America, and according to a 2006 Pew Hispanic Center study, nearly half of them arrived legally but overstayed their visas.
The new cards specifically address this problem, getting rid of the standard expiration periods that allowed immigrants to drive legally or present a valid ID even though they were in the country illegally. Instead, temporary visitors' licenses will expire when their visas expire. The vertical format – the same one used for minors – tells law enforcement personnel to be extra vigilant.
Critics say the vertical card unnecessarily stigmatizes immigrants. Besides, the expiration date is all that really matters. But when officers in most cities stop drivers and see that the license expiration date has lapsed, the driver will receive only a misdemeanor citation. No arrest occurs.
With horizontal licenses, officers have no way of quickly determining whether a "foreign-looking" driver should be detained or allowed to leave. Ethnic considerations come into play as the officer decides whether an immigration check is necessary. The horizontal ID invites racial profiling. The vertical ID dramatically reduces that problem.
Critics counter that state and local authorities are busy enough; immigration enforcement is the federal government's job. True, but it's obvious that this task is too big for the federal government to do by itself.
Sometimes state and local authorities must get involved because they are the ones who encounter illegal immigrants most often. More and more communities are demanding that local authorities assume a more aggressive role. We believe those cases should be rare.
The city of Irving is an example of federal-local cooperation through the Criminal Alien Program. And last month, Dallas County announced that prisoners' information will be checked against a federal immigration database during jail book-in procedures.
Local and state authorities must be careful about potential abuse of such new, expanded powers. The risk of racial profiling remains.
Vertical IDs help reduce that problem because they remove all racial considerations from the verification procedure. With the new ID format, vertical cards with expired dates are the only ones meriting additional scrutiny, whether the holder is Canadian, European, African, Latino, Arab or Asian.
People with horizontal cards – regardless of race or national origin – must receive the treatment afforded any U.S. citizen or permanent legal resident.
That's a change for the better.