Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Respect goes West: Mikes letter from America #4

Driving on the Right

I had it all planned out – I picked up the form to apply for a Michigan Drivers’ License last October, and, as soon as I had a social security number (as required by the form), I was going to take the test and get back behind the wheel after a long time as a pedestrian. However, between October and the arrival of my Social Security card in January, fate, John Edwards, and the Republican Party intervened.

Back in October, the contest to choose the Democratic presidential candidate had yet to become a two-horse race. Hillary Clinton seemed the clear front-runner, leaving her opponents in her wake, desperate to land a blow against her in the debates. Then John Edwards landed that blow. He asked Senator Clinton what she thought of the governor of New York’s proposed policy of giving drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. Clinton was caught off guard, waffled, and contradicted herself. She was shown to be vulnerable, and from that day on her lead narrowed, then vanished.

John Edwards is now out of the race, but his legacy remains. I and 400,000 other perfectly legal residents of Michigan were left without drivers’ licenses, or the means to get them. In the controversy that followed Clinton’s public embarrassment, the Michigan Republicans jumped on the anti-immigrant band-wagon. Attorney General Mike Cox, and his fellow-Republican, Secretary of State Terry Lynn Land, ruled that licenses were to be denied to anybody who is not a US citizen or permanent resident. What they overlooked is that there are many foreigners (or ‘aliens’ as we are charmingly called in official circles) who are not permanent residents. They include students, business people, refugees, and people like me who are in immigration limbo – here legally, but not yet permanent residents.

Like many controversies over race or immigration, the drivers’ license affair is really a non-issue, inflated by racist or opportunistic politicians. It’s like the British media’s obsession with headscarves and Sharia law – marginal issues that are used to bash Muslims and immigrants. The driver’s license in the USA is widely used as a form of ID, but in law it is merely a permit to drive – nothing more, nothing less. Giving licenses to illegal immigrants does not confer on them voting rights, employment rights, residency rights or anything else. It just makes them safer drivers. But this simple fact has got lost in the stampede of people wanting to put the boot into immigrants again.

This affair tells us a lot about how anti-immigrant campaigns work. Firstly, it shows us not to trust the Democrats. True, the Democratic governor of Michigan stepped in to change the law, so that legal immigrants are now able to drive. But John Edwards’ behaviour is instructive. Of the three main Democratic candidates, he was the most progressive, arguing against the war, and for the reduction of poverty and inequality. Yet given the opportunity, he chose to put scoring points over a political opponent ahead of principle. It also shows how the targeting of ‘illegal’ immigrants quickly turns into an assault on all immigrants.

Reinforcing all the paranoia about immigration is the post-9/11 obsession with security. Having been defeated on the licenses issue, Michigan Republicans are trying to link the new license to the ‘Real ID’ Act, a federal law designed to turn the driver’s license into an identity card by stealth. Both ‘Real ID’ and the Michigan’s driver’s license ban were carried through by invoking the ‘terrorist threat.’ This, of course, is nonsense – the 9/11 hijackers were all in the USA legally, and making it harder to obtain a license is hardly likely to deter a terrorist mastermind. Besides, thanks to neoliberal economics’ devastation of the auto industry, there’s hardly anything in Michigan worth blowing up. Maybe the Republicans fear radical Canadian terrorists crossing the border via the Detroit-Windsor tunnel?

In this climate, it’s not surprising that the Right have tried to make immigration a key issue in the election. The good news is that – at least so far – it hasn’t worked. Tom Tancredo, a Republican politician who ran explicitly on an anti-immigration ticket, failed spectacularly in the primaries. Mike Huckabee tried to use Benazir Bhutto’s assassination to whip up fear against Pakistani immigrants as potential terrorists, but was widely derided for it. Polls show that the voters rank immigration and ‘security’ behind the economy, Iraq, and health care as the main issues. Immigration is there in the background, as a kind of annoying hum, but has yet to move centre-stage. Of course, this may change in the lead-up to general election in November, if John McCain comes under pressure from the Right to prove his conservative credentials. The email whispering campaign against Barack Obama on account of his Muslim background shows how willing conservative Republicans are to play the race card.

Being unable to drive is hardly up there with deportation, working in illegal and unsafe employment, or being shot at by right-wing gun-nuts as the worst thing immigrants have to suffer. But it has given me a personal insight into the pettiness, racism, and witch-hunting mentality of anti-immigrant politics.

PS – It’s off topic, but I loved this anti-smoking ad that’s been on TV here recently. When so many anti-drug / smoking / alcohol campaigns are reactionary and moralistic, it’s a refreshing change to see one done with some humour.