Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Perils of petty bureaucracy

Lord Acton told us that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Anyone who has dealt with government bureaucracies soon learns that this insight can be elaborated upon: circumscribing power (one way to minimize corruption) tends to make those who wield it petty, and also short-sighted.

Exhibit A: the DMV

The state of Virginia requires two identity documents to get a drivers' license. There is a separate requirement for documentation to offer proof of legal presence, so these documents only need to establish identity. (An official school transcript suffices as second document, if coupled with a primary document that has full legal name and date of birth). Nevertheless, an unexpired foreign passport is not valid as proof of identity, unless it contains an unexpired or expired long-term visa (student, working, permanent resident, etc.). In other words: a document that is accepted worldwide, including by the U.S. federal government, as proof of identity, is not valid as proof of identity for the state of Virginia. See the accepted document list here. Petty power-wielding? Check.

Circumscribed power also leads to the wielding of that power without understanding. For example, I was told by a DMV agent that I should have held on to the last I-94 form I had in my passport prior to receiving a green card, because that form would suffice to make my passport acceptable as proof of identity. Never mind that you are legally supposed to surrender the I-94 form when you leave the country, and that the immigration service strongly frowns on people who fail to do so: the DMV suggests you violate immigration service rules so that you may meet their own arbitrary requirements.

Worse still — and rather more significant in the grand scheme of things — every single time in the past decade or so that I have visited a DMV office to obtain a driver's license — in several different states — I have been asked whether I would like to register to vote. And this is after I have shown them my foreign passport. So every single time I have to inform the DMV person in question that it is in fact against the law to register to vote as a non-citizen.

But what about people who do not know the law? If you believe in democracy and in the importance of elections, and are asked by an official government authority (which the DMV is, after all), which knows you are a foreigner, whether you would like to register to vote, wouldn't it make sense for you to say yes? As the New York Times reported in a sad article two weeks ago, the immigration service does not think so. In fact, it seems that voting in an election, as a foreigner, constitutes evidence of bad moral character.

The immigration service does have a point, of course: when registering to vote, you have to certify that you are a U.S. citizen. On the other hand, common sense also tells us that many people do not read the fine print on all the official forms they sign. It would help a lot, therefore, if we could at least rely on official government representatives to be aware of the law. It's not as though this would require a lot of additional training.

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