This one plays right into our acrimonious national debate. Unfortunately.
On Dec. 29, Richard Nackowski, age 73, was riding his motorcycle across the Palm City Bridge when a Chevy Trailblazer merged into his lane and struck the back of his bike. Nackowski flew into the air and then hit the pavement, where the Trailblazer ran him over. The driver of the Trailblazer took off.
There might have been a reason for that.
Antonio Rubio-Sanchez, 50, has been charged with driving without a license and leaving the scene of a crash involving death. Rubio-Sanchez, whose three kids were in the car at the time of the crash, is in the Martin County Jail where an immigration "hold" has been placed on him by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division, or ICE, according to a federal warrant.
That is, the feds believe Rubio-Sanchez could be an illegal/undocumented immigrant. Which might be why he didn't have a driver's license. Which might be why he allegedly fled the scene of the crash.
Nackowski's grandsons, who described him as the "rock" of their family, set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for services. "His whole family is lost without him," they wrote; Nackowski was "one of the greatest men we've ever known."
I reached out to Nackowski's grandsons via Facebook but unfortunately didn't get a response. Theirs is a bitter loss in any event. But I wondered if the circumstances surrounding the crash make it even tougher to swallow.
For as noted, this fits right in with our burgeoning discussion/debate/national screaming match over immigration. Those who back Donald Trump's view might say – correctly – that if the feds are right about Rubio-Sanchez's status, he shouldn't have been in the country in the first place. And if he hadn't been, Richard Nackowski still might be alive.
But there' is another way to react to this tragedy, another potential solution, though it might not be as cathartic.
According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, there are some 16 million licensed drivers in Florida, and another 2 million unlicensed drivers. Approximately one-fifth of all fatal crashes involve an unlicensed driver.
There are a lot of reasons why someone might not have a license, and an immigration status is only one of them. Florida, a sprawling state that basically requires a driver's license to navigate, might have up to 1 million undocumented immigrants, according to some estimates.
There's a school of thought that says if these immigrants could get a license, the roads might be safer.
They would need to know the rules of the road and pass tests. They would have to get car insurance, increasing the number of insured drivers and reducing uninsured motorists' claims. And they might be less likely to run from a crash.
Stuart attorney Christopher Gaston's Gaston Law Firm does a lot of immigration work.
"The biggest reasons people come into my office is that they're trying to get authorization to work, and driver's licenses," he said.
Some people who are in the process of trying to become documented can get a license; but most people who are undocumented can't, Gaston said.
He sees benefits to changing the law.
"These individuals would be required to maintain insurance, so in the event of a crash, not only do they have an incentive to remain at the scene, but there would be an opportunity for the injured party to recover (costs) from insurance," Gaston said.
Martin County Sheriff William Snyder declined to comment, saying he is charged with enforcing current law and would prefer to leave the issue to lawmakers.
Actually, lawmakers almost went down this road in 2013. The Legislature overwhelmingly passed House Bill 235, which would have given the "Dreamers," immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, the ability to get a license when they reached age 16. All Treasure Coast legislators backed it, it passed the Senate unanimously and there were only two "no" votes in the House. But Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the measure.
Some groups, including the ACLU of Florida and the Florida League of Women Voters, continue to back licenses for undocumented immigrants. But the issue hasn't exactly worked up a head of steam.
Which means, for now, we've got what we've got.
For the record, my own view on immigration is that it's entirely appropriate to instill new controls; there's an economic case for limiting immigration. But that's entirely separate from the question of what to do about those who already are here.
Making driver's licenses available to undocumented immigrants could, in fact, make it easier to be undocumented. One might even see it as an incentive.
Yet the reality is this: Though they legally shouldn't, many unauthorized immigrants will drive – without a license and without insurance. And if there's a crash, it creates another incentive: an incentive to flee.
Ultimately, the question is which incentive is better – or worse.
Gil Smart is a columnist for Treasure Coast Newspapers and a member of the Editorial Board. His columns reflect his opinion. Readers may reach him at [email protected], by phone at 772-223-4741 or via Twitter at @TCPalmGilSmart.