William F. B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.
Should New York City residents living here unlawfully receive official government-issued identity cards?
Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced just such a proposal, and the debate is already hot and heavy. Under his plan, the IDs would be used to open bank accounts, sign apartment leases, file police reports and generally make life in the big city easier for people who technically aren't supposed to be anywhere near it. Those in favor of the proposal call it humane, and those who oppose it think it's insane. What about the word "illegal" don't you understand, they ask.
The argument over whether to create identity cards for millions of "undocumented Americans," as they've come to be called, began following the 9/11 attacks when standards on state issued driver's licenses got tightened, at first state by state, and later under the federal Real ID Act, which mandates minimum security standards for state issued licenses.
Driver's licenses are America's de facto ID card, and they were a tool used by the 9/11 terrorists to establish and conceal themselves among the American public. Real ID advocates argued successfully that America is only as safe as its weakest link state. That is, a license issued in Hawaii or Idaho can be used to enter a federal office building in New York or anywhere else.
I worked on passing Real ID, and the animosity it caused was extraordinary. In one fell swoop, millions of long-term residents in the country unlawfully were unable to get licenses -- read: ID cards -- which they had been able to get previously under lax laws. A coalition on the political left quickly formed and hundreds of T-shirted union members and other organized opponents began turning up at the smallest hearings nationwide to shout down or otherwise intimidate advocates for a secure driver's license, which usually included relatives of 9/11 victims who earnestly wanted to do something to make their country safer. The most common tactic was the camera-in-the-face approach. (Somewhere in the vaults of SEIU my mug is ingloriously captured down to its most minute defects.)
The pressure from these groups became too much to bear for politicians in some states and the idea of a "two-tiered" license was born. The thought was to have one standard-issue driver's license for citizens and one license for non-citizens that couldn't be used as federal ID, that is, you couldn't use it to board planes, vote, register firearms, etc. It would allow you to drive and get auto insurance, but that was it.
Advocates for the undocumented population hated the idea at first. It would ostracize law-abiding, long-term American families, they argued. Nothing short of full licenses would suffice, they said. But after Real ID became federal law, these two-tiered licenses became the fallback position.
Which brings us to de Blasio's cards. These wouldn't be licenses -- two-tiered licenses don't exist in New York -- but they could be used for ID. They would address some of the hardships undocumented New Yorkers encountered after 9/11.
There are clear arguments for and against such cards. The what-about-the-word-illegal-don't-you-understand line of reasoning is most prevalent among opponents. But many security advocates argue that it makes sense to get people who pose no national security threat, which is the overwhelming majority of the undocumented population, to step forward and officially register with the government. Other groups, including the Catholic Church, support the ID cards on moral grounds: "whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." (Matthew 25:45)
I have another concern that I think runs deeper than any of these arguments. With plans like de Blasio's, and with proposals on the table to create a limited identity card for undocumented residents nationwide, are we, in effect, contemplating the creation of an official group of second-class citizens in the United States? Because if we are, that strikes me as anathema to the very idea of what America is supposed to be. America doesn't do second-class citizens. Isn't that at the core of our Constitution?
A second tier of "citizens," for lack of a better word, would institutionalize a massive underclass in this country, and that seems to me far more dangerous to the long term stability of the nation than illegal immigration itself. It could only breed political discontent, which would no doubt be fomented by professional agitators over time.
And yet the federal government's failure to definitively address the illegal immigration question one way or the other is slowly but surely encouraging states and municipalities to do just this. San Francisco and New Haven already have ID cards for undocumented residents, and the idea is quickly spreading.
The federal government needs to decide: strictly enforce immigration laws or establish a path to full citizenship. These half measures could destroy us from within.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a columnist and a Republican political consultant.