The current legislative gridlock in Washington is devastating. Severe societal problems persist because D. C. politicians can’t find common ground to effect solutions that will promote the common good.

As I have argued in earlier musings and in my recent book Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation, the root problem is fixation on either/or solutions rather than the necessary both/and solutions.

For example, the federal budget deficit problem will not be solved by EITHER cutting expenditures OR increasing revenues; both are needed.

In the gun control debate, the choice is not between EITHER addressing the mental health and culture of violence problems that beset our nation OR legislatively enacting some commonsense gun control measures. It has to be both.

In the debate about immigration reform the choice is not between EITHER improving border security and appropriately punishing those who have broken the law by entering our country illegally OR the pressing need to provide a viable pathway to citizenship for those undocumented workers who are making an enormous contribution to our economy and our country and whose families are being decimated by current broken immigration laws. It has to be both.

Focusing on this latter problem, the Immigration Reform bill that passed the U. S. Senate is a both/and bill. It calls for both greater border security and an arduous pathway to citizenship that punishes those who have entered the country illegally by means of significant fines. Those who erroneously argue that this bill provides “amnesty, which means “no punishment,” reflect a lack of moral imagination in not being able to envision something in-between “no punishment” and the extreme punishment of “deportation.”

Yet this attempt at “both/and” legislation hit a dead end in the House of Representatives. The reasons for that failure are surely complex. It reflects, in part, the questionable procedural rule that enables the Speaker of the House to prevent a vote on a bill that had enough votes to pass. In the corner of Iowa in which I live, it also reflects a major lack of trust in President Obama on the part of many conservatives that he will enforce whatever measures are legislated to strengthen border security, which is devastating since “trust lost” is not easily regained. But, in my estimation, the major reason for this gridlock is the prominence of either/or thinking (either abiding by the rule of law or providing a pathway to citizenship). It has to be both, which means that those on both sides of the aisle will not get only what they want. But our D. C. politicians do not seem capable of getting beyond the view that “it’s my way or the highway.”

So, whatever the reasons for the current Washington gridlock regarding immigration reform, that is our reality. How can citizens respond to the gridlock? By acting locally, either through their state legislators or municipal governments. I will illustrate this strategy by describing a local initiative in which I have been involved as Chair of the Advocacy Group of CASA of Sioux County, a local organization (Center for Assistance, Service and Advocacy) whose “vision” is for “transformed Northwest Iowa communities that welcome, empower, and celebrate people from all cultures” toward the “goal” of “diverse cultures enriching one another.”

The initiative for which CASA has been advocating is for the Iowa legislature to enact legislation that will provide temporary driver’s licenses for eligible immigrants (officially called “Temporary Visitors Drivers Licenses – TVDLs). The desired contours for the proposed legislation are as follows.


ELIGIBILITY: Immigrants, whether documented or not,  will be eligible to receive a temporary Iowa driver’s license (renewable every two years) if they meet the following requirements:


  • ·       Passing a driving test and demonstrating knowledge of rules of the road
  • ·       Providing proof of established Iowa residency (utilities bill or bank statement)
  • ·       Providing proof of identification (verifiable passport or a consular government  ID such as the Mexican Matricula Consular)
  • ·       Obtaining and carrying proof of auto insurance

LIMITATIONS: These driver’s license cards will be visually distinct from other licenses, and are marked on their face as not valid for identification or federal purposes. Given these differences, no one can use a driver’s license card to register to vote or vote, apply for public benefits, apply for a Firearm Owner ID card, board an airplane, or enter a federal building.


Public SafetyAn increasing number of law enforcement officers in Iowa (and in the 13 states that have already approved such temporary driver’s licenses) are supporting legislation for temporary licenses because such legislation will promote law enforcement goals for public safety in the following ways:


  • ·       Roadway safety will be improved for all Iowans by ensuring that all drivers get tested on their driving skills, know the rules of the road, and have access to insurance. People are more likely to flee from the scene of traffic accidents if they are driving without a license.


  • ·       Adding those with temporary driver’s licenses to the Iowa DOT database will allow for correct identification and apprehension of criminals in our communities instead of focusing valuable law enforcement resources and time on minor traffic infractions.


  • ·       During medical emergencies involving immigrants, first responders, health care providers and crime victim advocates will be able to use the license to identify the individuals they are assisting.

Immigrant FamiliesFor immigrants, driving is a necessity for going to work and providing for their families, including trips to the doctor, to church, to the grocery store, and school. Temporary driver’s licenses will contribute to the well-being of immigrant families by making such driving possible for all licensed immigrants.

Local EmployersLocal employers benefit when all their employees can be assured of a dependable means to travel to work. Temporary driver’s licenses will make this possible for many immigrant employees who do not presently have dependable means of transportation.

PRIVACY AND CONFIDENTIALITY: As legislation for temporary driver’s licenses is written and works its way through the Iowa Legislature, CASA and other advocates for this legislation will work to insure that the information that is revealed in applying for a temporary license does not go beyond the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT), and therefore will not be accessible to the federal government for the purpose of punitive action by the Federal government against undocumented immigrants.


This proposed legislation is a win-win-win proposition: public safety will improve (which has proven to be the case in the states that have already enacted such legislation); businesses will benefit because it will be easier for all their employees to drive to and from work; immigrant families will benefit because of greater mobility. What is not to like?

In my corner of Iowa I have heard two objections. First, some say that “the federal government needs to act before the state can pass policy to handle this problem.” My response is that Iowans can’t wait to reap these benefits until the U. S. Congress acts (which will not be in the foreseeable future). Immigration reform gridlock in D. C. should not keep Iowans from the good we can do right now.

But a more difficuly objection to address, because it is too often unspoken, is that such legislation will “reward those who have broken the law” (undocumented immigrants who have entered the country illegally). This objection must be openly acknowledged and addressed head-on.

Let me grant, for the sake of argument, that under a certain definition of “reward” this objection is valid. I will call this the “downside” of the proposed legislation. But the dilemma that Iowans face is that not enacting such legislation has a more destructive “downside”; the negative effects on public safety, the harm done to local businesses, and the harm done to immigrant families. To be sure, if comprehensive immigration reform of the type passed by the U. S. Senate became the law of the land, this concern about rewarding those who have broken the law would evaporate (since that legislation includes appropriate punishments). But that will not happen soon. So, in the meantime, Iowans should do the “good that is possible” by choosing that option that minimizes a perceived “downside.”

This extended example of proposing Iowa state legislation to grant temporary driver’s licenses to eligible immigrants is only one illustration of the good that can be done locally in response to Washington gridlock on immigration reform. In a similar fashion, state and local municipalities should take action to address a host of other societal problems that politicians in Washington appear to be incapable of addressing. It is encouraging that a number of big city mayors and state governors and legislatures are now taking such local initiatives to promote the common good.














PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend