Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas in Canada

This is my first Christmas since moving back to Canada from the United States, although for most of the six years I lived in the US we still came back to Canada for Christmas. Going back and forth between the two countries, I can easily see the differences.

As I wrote a couple of years ago, one big difference in the United States is that it seems people are afraid to wish each other a "Merry Christmas" out of fear of offending those who may not celebrate Christmas. So, they say "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings" or other holiday-neutral sorts of things. That is certainly not a concern in Canada: according to a recent poll, fully 94% of Canadians celebrate Christmas, and so people here generally say "Merry Christmas" with impunity.

Perhaps the biggest difference is the number of non-Christians in Canada who have adopted some form of family Christmas traditions. Through all this, Christmas in Canada has evolved from a celebration of Christ's birthday into a religion-neutral family holiday that everyone seems to like. People put up lights and decorations on their houses, put up Christmas trees, exchange gifts, wish each other Merry Christmas, have Christmas parties, and don't worry about offending each other.

On our own block and in our own neighborhood we see this: an Indian Hindu family putting up brilliant lights on their house, a Chinese family coming over to exchange gifts, hijab-clad Muslim women rushing to finish buying last minute Christmas gifts at the mall, etc.

Some may argue that the religious meaning behind Christmas has become distorted, but the benefit is that the holiday has been disseminated to a broader audience. Given that more Canadians celebrate Christmas than celebrate Canada Day (our national holiday), Christmas is truly a national holiday for us, and one that unites us as Canadians.

For all of you, in Canada our outside, Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Drivers License Stupidity

Over the past few years, I have really marveled at how strange and convoluted the US policy is towards drivers licenses.

Prior to 9/11, in many states pretty much anyone could get a drivers license. You just go to your local department of motor vehicles office, show them proof of who you are (birth certificate, passport, etc.), they make you do a test to see whether you know how to drive a car, and they give you a license. Then, after 9/11, this got much more strict.

In New York, where I lived prior to returning to Canada, the laws were particularly dumb. To get a drivers license, you needed to show your social security card. This was fine and dandy, except that, as I wrote last year, the SSA does not issue social security cards to people not allowed to work in the US, including dependents (wife, children, etc.) of people who are legally allowed to work. If you did not have a social security card, you needed to go to the Social Security Administration and get a letter telling you that you aren't allowed to have one, along with proof of status in the country. Then, under the REAL ID act of 2005, New York had to tighten the policy even more so that people had to show proof of legal status in the country, and the expiry date of the passport would be set to expire on the same date as the person's status.

The issue this presented to my own family was for my wife. As I was in the United States legally on a work authorization, I was legally allowed to work, and when I went for my own drivers license I had a social security card to show the DMV. My wife, however, did not have a social security card, and had to go through a ridiculously convoluted process:
  • Go to the Social Security Administration, and fill out an application for a social security card, wait the hour or so in line and get rejected for a social security card (as she was not authorized to work in the US).
  • When she was rejected for the social security card, she had to ask the person at the counter for a letter saying she was rejected. Of course the person behind the counter has no idea why she was asking for this and so did not want to give her anything. My wife had to go through this process three times before she got the letter, finally bringing with her a copy of the page from the DMV saying she needed it.
  • Apply for the drivers license, bringing a copy of her passport, the I-94 form saying she was legally allowed to be in the country, and the letter from the SSA.
When my wife finished this, she got a drivers license, embossed in big red letters "TEMPORARY VISITOR: STATUS EXPIRES XXX" - an embarrasing "Scarlet Letter" drivers license that caused raised eyebrows every time she needed to show ID to buy a drink in a restaurant. It is good for us she got her drivers license before they introduced the requirement that it would expire every time her status expired - otherwise, she would have had to go through this convoluted mess once a year.

The basis of all of these efforts, the REAL ID act, etc. was the fact that the 9/11 terrorists used US-issued drivers licenses to board the airplanes they later flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

What people seem to have forgotten in all of this is that the primary purpose of a drivers license is not a form of ID, and not something to board an airplane with, it is a license to operate a motor vehicle. These same people also forget that foreign ID (foreign passports, drivers licenses, etc.) can also be used to board an airplane, and if the goal of restricting drivers licenses was to prevent something like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it would not have worked.

In many parts of the United States, it is very difficult to get around without a car, and people need to have one to be able to go to work, take the children to school, go to the grocery store or the mall, etc. It is generally possible to drive in the US with a foreign drivers license, however it is not possible to register a car in your name, and is generally not possible to get insurance.

In the United States, there is a vast number of illegal immigrants who do not have legal "visitor" status and cannot legally get any form of drivers license. Does this mean they will not drive a car? No, they are already here illegally, doing one more illegal thing will not hurt. So they will drive a car, either under a fake drivers license, someone else's license, or no license at all, and hope that nobody pulls them over for a speeding ticket.

This, in turn, puts a burden on the rest of the people in the United States - if these people cannot get insurance, and they get in an accident, the victim of the accident cannot get compensated.

Earlier this year, Elliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, proposed a solution for this problem - allowing the DMV to issue drivers licenses to illegal/undocumented immigrants. These drivers licenses would allow the bearer to drive a car, but would bear a note that they do not comply with the REAL ID Act. Spitzer's plan was ripped apart by many people, including those from his own party, resulting in him abandoning it. Personally I found these events saddening. Spitzer, by proposing this plan, demonstrated that he is one of the few politicians who truly understands the underlying issues around drivers licenses and immigration, and the response was for Spitzer to be pilloried in the press and Internet, and for his popularity to plummet. With the type of ignorance that was shown in this New York drivers license debate, I really question whether we will ever see a resolution to the problems related to immigration in the United States in our lifetime.