Since this question seems very hard for Democratic politicians to give a straightforward answer to, I thought I’d try to think about it myself. The problem with saying “yes” isn’t just that it’s unpopular, it’s that it’s unpopular because it sounds ridiculous. On some level, illegal immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to get coffee at Starbucks. There’s nothing that a person who’s in the United States illegally can do inside the United States that is legal. If it’s illegal for you to live in the United States, and it’s illegal for you to work in the United States, then obviously it’s illegal for you to drive to work in the United States which makes handing out driver’s licenses to illegals seem preposterous.
On the other hand, back to the Starbucks. While it’s not legal, as such, for illegal immigrants to be buying a latte at Starbucks, they also don’t, in practice, need to pass a citizenship check or show a valid visa in order to do so. And, I think, rightly so. It would be incredibly inconvenient for everyone to need to present documentation before buying coffee. Coffee shops simply aren’t a good locus for enforcement of immigration laws — laws which ought to be enforced at the border, at airports, and at the workplace. The DMV seems to me to be closer to the Starbucks than to the airport in this regard. What, after all, does the policy of requiring verified legal residency before issuing a driver’s license accomplish? It doesn’t stop people from crossing the border or overstaying their visa. It doesn’t stop illegal immigrants from driving. Surely nobody is showing up at the DMV, getting asked for proof of legal residency, and then breaking down and getting deported. Having lots of people driving around without licenses, meanwhile, seems to be a problem for road safety and law enforcement.
Which comes back to the point that immigration laws should be enforced at the points where it’s likely to be effective — at borders and airports (which I think we do a decent job of given the objective difficulty of the task) and at the workplace, where we do a shitty job. Insofar as it would be inhumane, impractical, or uneconomic to drive the millions of currently-in-the-country illegals out, creating a relatively simple path to citizenship for them seems like a good idea. Insofar as aggregate level of immigration ought to be higher than the current legally permitted ceiling, we ought to raise that ceiling. And insofar as we ought to enforce the law more rigorously, we ought to enforce it more rigorously at the appropriate places most of all in terms of creating strong legal incentives for employers to avoid hiring illegals (I’ve previously been drawn to Mark Kleiman’s point that we could simply create incentives — including a valid green card — for illegals to rat out people who hire them) rather than mucking around with the DMV.
So to echo first Hillary Clinton and now John Edwards too it really is hard to give the question a simple answer!