Spitzer Chose to Compromise on Immigrant Licenses

By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007

NEW YORK, Oct. 31 -- When New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer (D) announced six weeks ago that illegal immigrants would be able to obtain driver's licenses in his state, he expected some opposition, but not a national firestorm. After all, seven other states, under Republican and Democratic governors, had implemented similar plans without much notice.

But what began as a way for undocumented residents to take road tests and obtain auto insurance without fear of deportation turned into a divisive issue within his own party yesterday and among some of his closest supporters.

"Anything today is going to be more contentious since we went through a failed immigration reform effort," Spitzer said in an interview. "The second reason why this may have become such an issue is the presidential campaigns, where immigration politics is front and center."

Spitzer's plan rocked New York when it was unveiled on Sept. 21. But Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate threw a national spotlight on the effort when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York appeared to waver on whether she supported the initiative. At least one of her challengers staunchly opposed the proposal, while several others chastised her for appearing not to take a stronger stand.

Steve Malanga, a scholar with the conservative Manhattan Institute, suggested that Tuesday's Democratic debate highlighted "doubt about the license program," adding: "If candidates from your own party are using it as a wedge issue, you have a problem."

Spitzer's staff consulted with Clinton's today, but he would not say what he understood her position to be on the issue.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson did not address the topic during the debate, though he implemented a similar plan during his first year in Santa Fe. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, a former Republican governor of Utah, also issued driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Leavitt's plan was reversed by his Republican successor after he left the state to join the Bush administration.

In pitching the proposal six weeks ago, Spitzer, a former New York attorney general, noted that states have to contend with the consequences of millions of illegal immigrants in the absence of a cohesive national policy. He argued that licenses would force as many as 1 million New Yorkers to complete road tests and obtain auto insurance, bringing down premiums and offering illegal immigrants a way into a legally accountable system.

But foes said the plan rewarded illegal behavior, and some said it could harm national security, noting that several of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers had boarded planes with illegally obtained licenses.

After negotiations with the Department of Homeland Security and personal calls with Secretary Michael Chertoff, Spitzer announced a revised, three-tiered plan last week in which undocumented immigrants will be issued a license that cannot be used to board flights or cross borders. The licenses will be flagged "not for federal purposes."

Homeland Security officials said the plan satisfied their concerns. But immigrant rights groups that have been supportive of Spitzer decried it and accused the governor of abandoning a "one license for all" approach.

"A tiered system is clearly a system of separate and unequal licenses," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. "In this poisonous environment regarding illegal immigrants, and with county clerks threatening to turn over applicants to the county sheriff, it is an invitation for racial profiling and anti-immigrant hostility," she said.

Spitzer pledged to work "extraordinarily hard to make sure that won't happen."

In an agreement with Homeland Security, Spitzer won a concession from the federal government allowing an enhanced version of the state driver's license to be used for frequent travelers across the Canadian border. Beginning in January, the government will require a passport or other secure form of identification for land crossings. The mandate has provoked deep concerns in border states that huge lines at crossings could adversely affect commercial traffic and tourism.

"The most important thing for us is security," Stewart A. Baker, assistant DHS secretary for policy, said, adding that New York will become the fourth state, after Washington, Vermont and Arizona to reach an agreement on the border card and the largest state to embrace controversial new national standards for driver's licenses. "Now that New York is on board, we expect to see several more states come on," he said.

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report from Washington.

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