How Drunk Driving Turned Into an Immigration Issue

PHOTO: drinkSean Locke/Getty Images
A government study found there wasn't a relationship between driving under the influence and where you're born.

When an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala hit and killed an 8-year-old girl and her mother in 2009, some people in the town of Brewster, New York, made the debate about the man's immigration status.

The assailant, Conses Garcia-Zacarias, was driving his Ford F-350 without a license and his blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit.

"This illegal alien criminal, by actions of his own choosing, took the lives of two of our neighbors and friends," Ed Kowalski, an area resident and a member of a local conservative organization, said about the incident in 2010. "The DWI aspects of these deaths are only half of the story; sadly, the problem of criminal activity among the illegal alien population in our area can only be addressed when our elected officials recognize the scope of the problem and address it in a uniform, consistent way."

This sort of attitude -- linking immigration status and drunk driving -- doesn't just happen on the local level.

An immigration reform bill that passed in the Senate last week includes a provision aimed at "habitual drunk drivers." Any individual with three or more drunk driving offenses in the U.S. would be deportable and barred from reentering the country, if the bill eventually becomes law.

However, immigrants aren't more likely to drive under the influence than native-born Americans, according to a 2008 study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The study looked at Hispanics born in the U.S. and abroad. The findings: that birthplace wasn't a factor when it came to drunk driving, either over the short term or the long term.

Unlicensed driving, however, is significantly more dangerous than driving without a license. And most states don't allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a license. So in that sense, there is a link to immigration policy.

People who were driving with an invalid license, had no known license, or whose license status could not be determined accounted for 20 percent of fatal crashes from 2001 to 2005, according to "Unlicensed to Kill," a 2008 report by AAA.

Add alcohol or drug use to the equation, and you could have a very dangerous driver on the road. The case in New York shows that.

But looking at the data -- and not just anecdotal evidence -- you can see that drunk driving isn't a product of being an immigrant.

Still, the false connection continues to crop up on the local level, and could even find its way into federal immigration law.