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Face to Face: A Conversation with Jorge Lomonaco


The foreign service officer from Mexico discusses efforts to grant undocumented people in Florida a driver's permit.

Q. You fell short this past session. What is the status? Will you try again?

A. It's up to the proponents -- [Miami Republican] Senator [Rudy] Garcia in the Senate, and I understand there was a sponsor also from the House, [Miami Republican] Gustavo Barreiro, but the discussion never reached the [House] So it's up to them. We are only observers of the proposals and we will be following closely whether Sen. Garcia or Rep. Barreiro introduces the same legislation or different legislation.

Q. The legislation called for a driver's permit, not a license. What's the difference?

A. The proposal that was sponsored by these two legislators was that foreign nationals could apply for a driving permit, which would be limited to two years. It could be extended for additional periods, if I remember correctly. And that would be only for driving, valid only in Florida, and it would not serve as a seed document for additional IDs. My understanding is that the proposal, the creation of this new driving permit for foreigners, was a way to meet the concerns of those who believe that there is a risk in issuing drivers' licenses to foreigners because the driver's license has become, in the U.S., in general, not necessarily in Florida, a way to gain access to other kinds of documentation

Q. What is the benefit?

A. The idea was to solve the issue of driving in Florida with adequate documentation So, why not issue a driving permit to solve the inconsistencies and the problems deriving from application of the law?

Q. And what are those problems specifically?

A. The current situation has these three or four inconsistencies that are of concern. The first problem is that since the current situation has not prevented those who have no driver's license from driving, there are large numbers of people who are driving without drivers' licenses. That, in itself, creates at least two problems. First, they are driving without the adequate driving skills. They are not forced to pass the driving tests that all those who get a driver's license need to pass. So there is no way to assure that they know the rules and that they have the skills, which creates a safety issue. As many of your readers can see, there are drivers who are a safety hazard.

The second problem is that those same drivers do not have insurance. The result of that is that we -- you, I and everybody who is driving and is insured in this state -- are paying between 8 and 13 percent, according to some estimates, on top of what we should pay because we are paying for, in our premiums, for those who are not insured.

Q. One of the skepticisms raised about this legislation is: How do you know the persons getting permits are who they say they are?

A. One of the ideas behind this proposal was to engage the foreign consulates in helping the authorities to determine that this person applying for a driving permit is "Juan Perez" and that he is in fact a Mexican. That each one of the consulates should assist in confirming the identity and the nationality of the applicant.

Q. Are you prepared to do that?

A. We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to help the authorities and to help our community in solving one of the major day-to-day nightmares for them, which is not being able to drive regularly with proper documentation.

Q. And the documentation would be good enough to ascertain that, in fact, Juan Perez is Juan Perez?

A. I can speak only for Mexico. With the consular ID we can confirm, first of all, that the person is who he says he is, or she says she is. We can also confirm that he or she is Mexican. And now that we have a common centralized database, we can confirm whether this person has or has not previously applied for the consular ID elsewhere in the United States. And also we can confirm whether this person is subject to a criminal investigation, or not, in Mexico.

Q. A concern about these permits is that they could hand a driver's permit, a form of status, to terrorists. Is this a justifiable concern?

A. Again, I can only speak on behalf of Mexico. I don't think those concerns are justified in the case of Mexican nationals. Why? Because of how much we have improved our consular ID. Second, let me share a recent story. During the discussion of these proposals, I was asked by someone whether or not an employee of the consulate would be subject to a bribe or anything for someone who doesn't fulfill the requirements, to get the consular ID And I responded that I would never think that anyone whose career is on the line -- at least half of my personnel are career officers and they have a 30-, 40-year career on the line -- no one will risk that career for $30, $40, $50, $100, whatever amount. No one will put his or her job on the line for that amount.

Because that's what we're talking about. That's the kind of problem we face everyday. Migrant workers -- they could be either Mexicans who cannot fulfill the requirements because they could not get ahold of their birth certificate in Mexico because they left Mexico many years ago, or because they are from a small village in the mountains and it's really hard for them to get their birth certificate, or because they cannot prove they have a permanent address here -- I would never imagine them thinking of bribing a Mexican officer in the consulate. Or you're talking about the Central American or South American who, for whatever reason, decided they would try to pose as a Mexican, would be in the same situation as a Mexican migrant working. It's hard to imagine.

Q. Isn't part of the problem the perception that people here illegally are living off government aid and it's not clear how they sustain themselves here?

A. That could explain why there's this misunderstanding or prejudice vis--vis the consular ID. And I find this prejudice more often in places where you see fewer Mexicans, or [with people] who are less familiar with migrants

Q. So what do you tell people?

A. They are hard-working. Mexican nationals who come here to seek a better life, to seek a better future for their families. They are mostly engaged in agriculture and work from dawn to dusk every day. They live a very difficult life every day. Their conditions of living are well behind the rest [of the population]. They are many times underpaid, sometimes abused, and their only aim is to progress as much as they can and to provide a better life for their families.

Q. Hispanics in the United States send about $30 billion a year back to loved ones in their native countries. I'm sure the number for Mexicans is high. Is this a factor in Mexico's desire to see the driver's permit approved?

A. No, not really. Our interest, our priority is to secure, to protect their rights and to assist them in any way that we can for them to have the best possible life. Mexico is not looking after remittances Our aim, in an ideal scenario, is to keep those Mexicans in Mexico. We are losing some of our best to the United States because we cannot, as of today, offer the jobs and fulfill the aspirations of all Mexicans. And that's a shame. Our goal is to keep those Mexicans at home rather than to export those Mexicans.

Now, since we haven't been able to provide job opportunities for every single Mexican, what we try to do is for them to have the best possible life where they are

Q. There are people who say, `Wait a minute, they broke the law to get into the U.S. and therefore they have no rights.' Your response?

A. It would be like proposing something similar to an original sin. They committed the original sin and therefore they should never be allowed to have any rights. I would ask those people whether that's fair, whether that's right.

They committed a minor administrative fault. They are not criminals. They are here because they seek a better future. They are not criminals. To imply they shouldn't have any rights because they broke an immigration law would be to assume that they should be forever second-class citizens. I would say that those are, in a way, hypocritical arguments.

Q. But, isn't giving them rights unfair to the many other people around the world who are trying to immigrate to the United States through legal channels?

A. So is it OK for them to clean your house, but not to drive a car to get to your house in order to clean your house? Would it be better for you to know what's the name, the nationality of the person who is cleaning your house? And to know that when he or she is arriving at your house that he or she is has done it properly by not risking the lives of the passersby, of your own sons and daughters? That in arriving at your house they have not increased your insurance? If you don't think they should be driving, why do you accept their produce at your supermarkets? Or taking care of your kids? Or cleaning your house? Or cutting your grass? Obtaining your food? Why one thing and not the other?

Q. People say, well, we've had NAFTA for 10 years, why is there still this flow of immigrants?

A. I would say two things. The first is, you mentioned the push factor, but you didn't mention the pull factor. There are workers available from less developed countries, yes. But there are also jobs available here in this country that are not up to the standard of an American citizen, that are not taken by Americans and that are available for people. So, there is a pull factor. There is an attraction in the U.S. economy.

The second: 10 years after NAFTA, we've seen a major change in trade which will, in turn, get to reduce the gap between Mexico and the U.S. Then, eventually, as the demographic curve also has changed in Mexico, [that] will reduce the push factor. You cannot expect an economy that is 20 times Mexico's will become less asymmetric overnight. It is a work in progress in that sense. By the way, Mexico's GDP per capita has [increased] in the last 10 years, which is a major change, but still the gap between the $6,500 in Mexico and the $30,000 in the U.S. is still large.

Q. California has stepped back from offering drivers' privileges to illegal immigrants. If Florida does, won't that make our state a magnet for undocumented people? Is that a fair concern?

A. I don't think it's fair. First of all, we haven't seen a trend, an immigration flow, based on whether a migrant can get a driver's license or not. That's not the main reason for a migrant to decide where to go

There are 14 states in the U.S. that have no link between immigration status and the access to drivers' licenses People speak about the failures in California. California is always part of the equation but people tend to forget states in which similar moves were a success, such as New Mexico or Nevada. And I don't see New Mexico or Nevada becoming a new attraction for immigration just because they changed their driver's license laws.

Q. This is a bill that had support in the Senate, the House and also Gov. Jeb Bush was in support. What happened?

A. It got stuck in the Senate because concerns were raised regarding security. Some of the concerns you mentioned, about the ability to confirm the identity and whether or not this could be a way for terrorists to get access to drivers' licenses in Florida, those concerns apparently were considered to be serious enough for the proponent to decide to withdraw -- or to freeze, I don't exactly know the term -- the proposal until those concerns could be discussed during the year and probably try again next year.

Q. Were you surprised the security issues stopped the legislation late in the session?

A. I wasn't really surprised. I had heard those concerns before I'm disappointed that there was not enough opportunity for those concerns to be addressed. And I hope there is an opportunity next year to address those concerns. But I'm not surprised by the fact that those concerns arose.

Q. Why couldn't they be settled in this past session?

A. It's a short session and these are complicated issues. I can understand why. In an eight-week session there are many, many, many issues to discuss, the budget and other issues, so I'm not surprised there was not time. I understand why there was not enough time to thoroughly discuss these issues. But I hope there is time next year.

Q. So your expectation is there will be another time next year?

A. I hope so. Because even if you don't think about immigrants, you only think about the perspective of a Floridian who is spending extra amounts of money because of lack of insurance, or a Floridian who confronts hazardous drivers every day, you have to address these issues, either this way or some other way.

There is also the need to address [terrorism] issues. The bottom line was to prevent people who are a risk or threat to national security, to prevent them from getting drivers' licenses in the state of Florida. That is a concern that I share, that I understand, of course.

But it seems to me that this has not really been solved -- if you consider that those same [Sept. 11 terrorists] could get [a license] today because they were documented, they had visas. So if you are trying to distinguish those who are a threat from those who are not a threat, I don't think placing a line between those who have documents and those who do not have documents is an accurate way to distinguish [threats from non-threats].

This is a real issue whether or not you consider immigration as part of the equation or not; you have an inconsistency in the law as it is today. So it seems to me to be odd that some of the criticism comes from concern about security, when you have an unresolved problem regarding security, as it is today. This needs to be addressed. And I hope in addressing that security issue, the day-to-day problems of those hardworking, law-abiding immigrants is also addressed, which is my main duty as a consul general of Mexico. But I think the driving force should be why a proposal such as this one is good for Floridians.


Jorge Lomonaco has headed Mexico's Miami consulate since April 2003. He joined Mexico's foreign service in 1991 and has served in London and Washington.

Earlier this year, Lomonaco supported a bill before the Florida Legislature that would grant undocumented people in Florida a driver's permit. Like other immigration matters, the proposal is a hot-button issue. In this interview, Lomonaco explains why the bill is in Florida's best interest.

Publication Date: Edition: Broward Metro

Section: EDITORIAL Page: 5H

Memo: Informational box at end of text.


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