Visa details should not be visible on licenses

The State Legislature is considering making permanent a modern-day scarlet letter. Last July, the Legislature passed an emergency regulation that required non-U.S. citizens to have the date of their visa expiration printed on the face of their driver’s licenses. This week the Legislature is considering making this regulation permanent. In an atmosphere already charged by racial profiling and jingoism, the Legislature’s plan needlessly incites mistrust within our state.

The United States has an interest in ensuring its immigrants do not overstay their visas. However, this is properly the concern of the federal government, vis-a-vis the INS, and not of the states. But even to the extent the state has an interest in policing its own borders, the Legislature’s plan is ill-conceived to achieve the end.

Americans’ mistrust of and tension with the rest of the global politic is at the highest point it has been since the end of the Cold War. Increasingly, the United States is becoming alienated from the rest of the world. The administration’s repeated terror alerts keep the citizenry on edge and suspicious of others.

Instead of working to alleviate these mistrusts, the proposed legislation exacerbates them. Not only police, but anyone who has cause to check someone’s driver’s license – tellers, waitresses, movie attendants – will have occasion to know the individual is not a citizen. Instead, Minnesota could obtain the same end without the attendant difficulties.

If playing watchdog for the INS is truly a Minnesota concern, it should instead encode immigrant’s visa expiration dates into the strip on the licenses. Police officers who detained an individual could scan the license and determine if this was an immigrant who had overstayed their visa. However, information on whether this was someone who was an immigrant, legal or not, would not be broadcast to the public at large. This solution would respect the privacy and minimize discrimination against individuals who are legally within U.S. borders.

Protecting the United States’ borders should not come at the cost of unnecessarily disrupting life within them. The United States, a country of immigrants, should respect that. Given there exists simple and effective alternatives to inviting fear and mistrust the Legislature should shy away from this 19th century thinking.