for The Connecticut Post

February 3, 2013


The angry letters practically write themselves.

Illegal means illegal. Stop rewarding law-breakers. And on and on.

Few issues lend themselves to demagoguery as easily as immigration. So the idea of allowing people referred to as illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses from the state of Connecticut will be a nonstarter to many people.

Which doesn't make it a bad idea.

The justifications are simple. Police need to know who they're dealing with, either at a traffic stop or the scene of a crime. The roads will be safer because a license requires a driving test. And the possibility of insuring thousands of currently uninsured drivers should lead to reduced rates for everyone.

And to look at the bigger picture, undocumented immigrants are here and a part of our lives already. They're not going anywhere. No matter your feelings, it's best to deal with the issue practically, rather than pretend that making their lives more miserable will make them go away.

That was the big idea, incidentally, behind Mitt Romney's ill-fated immigration plans -- self-deportation. Rather than waste time on costly hearings, the plan was to take away everything possible and wait for the affected population to move away on their own. Like many of his proposals, that idea did not go over well.

A driver's license is not equivalent to citizenship. But it would ease the burden somewhat for people often on the fringes of society, people least likely to report crimes committed against them but who nonetheless live here and raise families and work hard like anyone else.

The license push is an ongoing effort by CONECT, short for Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut. It's a collection of religious organizations up and down the coast that have banded together to use their combined political weight for the benefit of their congregants -- and, really, for everyone.

The organization was co-founded by the Rev. Anthony L. Bennett, of Bridgeport's Mount Aery Baptist Church, and the Rev. James Manship, of St. Rose of Lima Church in New Haven, who more than anyone else is responsible for exposing abuses suffered by the most vulnerable residents of neighboring East Haven. But membership goes beyond the cities to the home of the real power and money in Connecticut, with churches and synagogues from places like Westport and Fairfield.

And they're not just out making speeches -- the group is proving adept at leveraging its muscle, targeting specific legislators and working the inner halls of power in Hartford. It's all on behalf of people who have no political power of their own, including undocumented immigrants.

"Undocumented," by the way, is the term of choice not just for soft-hearted liberals, but has been increasingly pushed by national Republicans. Many of them understand that appearing to demonize a growing bloc of Hispanic voters is a recipe for electoral disaster, of the kind suffered in 2012. Expect to hear less of the term "illegal immigrant" in the coming national debate.

To people inclined to believe the undocumented are here just to steal our services, and are simply leaching off the rest of society, the reaction to the driver's license proposal is predictable. The challenge will be appealing to people who understand the struggles people face but still believe there must be an orderly process by which people arrive in this country and achieve official recognition, as previous generations of immigrants had to do.

There's a moral case to helping people in need, and a practical case, too -- everyone wants safer roads, for instance. CONECT, to its credit, is making the case on both levels. And without it and other groups like it, questions like this wouldn't be raised at all.

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