Kate Nagle is reporting on GoLocalProv that Rhode Island’s Speaker of the House, Democrat Nicholas Mattiello, has expressed his belief that whether illegal immigrants should be able to procure driver’s licenses is a legislative question that should be answered in the General Assembly. The comment comes after Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo told Bill Rappleye, of NBC 10, that she still has her administration working on the issue and an activist who claims to be working with the governor said the move will likely come before the end of the year and by some sort of executive action.
In 2013, former state Senator John Tassoni, a Democrat from Smithfield, introduced S0422 to create a new section in state law granting such licenses. Tassoni withdrew the bill, however, telling opposition activists that he’d never received so much negative response for legislation before.
The language of Tassoni’s bill is instructive. The fact that, with the Senate’s professional legislative council, he chose to add language to the law, rather than remove whatever language prevented liberal Democrat then-Governor Lincoln Chafee from offering the licenses suggests that no such preventative language exists in state law. If state law allows for driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, then Governor Raimondo can implement them through executive order.
What the state and federal constitutions mean when they grant “executive” and “legislative” authority to different branches of government is not defined. Rather, those terms are a matter of general understanding, with boundaries set through the findings of judges over time and the current politics of the day. The political news of recent years has given ample evidence of how dramatic policy changes can be when words that are not defined in law are asserted to mean something new.
The only substantial barriers are political, with the possibility that those opposing the governor or legislators could use the controversial issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants to run successful campaigns and gain office (from which position, they would have influence on vastly more issues than the one on which they campaigned). That possibility, however, has to outweigh the political benefit that incumbent politicians and their allies will gain by catering to the special interests who are pushing for the radical move to be made, with the specter of voter fraud lingering in the shadows of elections.
As a legal matter, if Speaker Mattiello wishes to preserve the legislature’s authority over the issue of driver’s licenses, the General Assembly would have to pass a law (and override any veto) either expressly forbidding the licenses or, at least, stating that the executive does not have the authority to implement them on its own. In the absence of such a law, the Raimondo administration has merely to tie a few loose ends, mainly having to do with appropriate identification, which is defined entirely in regulation.
As Jon Feere, of the Center for Immigration Studies, explains in Nagle’s article, the form of identification is the central question. If the rules do not require some proven establishment in Rhode Island, illegal immigrants from across the country (indeed, the world) might make their way to Rhode Island for the licenses.
For the time being, the fight is entirely political. That means that, in order to stop the implementation of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants in Rhode Island, opponents would do well to encourage current legislators to begin publicly preparing legislation that is more explicit than even the speaker seems to want and for potential candidates for General Assembly to begin campaigning on the issue right now.