Spitzer capitulates on license plan

You know, every time we start to develop a soft spot for a politician, he wastes no time in disabusing us of our comfortable illusions. The most recent case in point is New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. After taking flack from the xenophobes for his plan to make driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants, he shared a stage with Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff in Washington Oct. 27 to announce changes to the program, bringing it into compliance with the federal REAL ID Act—and creating a special class of licenses for out-of-status immigrants. From NY1, Oct. 29:

Dozens of immigration advocates protested outside Governor Eliot Spitzer’s Midtown office Sunday, enraged by what they see as the governor’s betrayal.

“You have forsaken a practical policy that would have been a benefit for all New Yorkers – for what? For just your own short-sighted political cover,” said S.J. Jung of the Young Korean American Service & Education Center. “Today, New Yorkers are outraged by your flip-flopping and New Yorkers are ashamed to have someone like you as our governor.”

Many of the protestors had supported Spitzer’s previous plan to allow illegal immigrants to apply for the same state driver’s licenses as legal residents. But he faced a wave of criticism by state Republicans who said it would make New York less safe. And Democrats – worried about the potential political fallout – offered only tepid support.

So Saturday, Spitzer announced a deal with the d Department of Homeland Security to create a multi-tiered licensing system, which he previously opposed. Under the plan, illegal immigrants could apply for driver’s licenses that would not be recognized by the federal government – something immigration advocates say would push illegal immigrants farther into – not out of – the shadows.

“We cannot have public safety when you carve out a million people from the public safety role and system and have them stigmatized with a big scarlet letter,” said Chung-Wa Hung of the New York Immigration Coalition.

Legal residents would be able to apply for a federally approved license with more stringent requirements as part of the federal Real ID Act. Residents in Northern and Western New York could get a third kind of license that would allow them to cross the Canadian border without their passports.

Spitzer says the plan will create the most secure licensing program in the country, but critics say he’s throwing his support behind a national ID program and further enflaming anti-immigration sentiment.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg – who previously expressed concerns about the governor’s original plan – called Spitzer’s move a step in the right direction, but if anything, it has only added fuel to the heated debate on the issue.

See our last post on the immigration crackdown.

  1. More details on Spitzer license capitulation
    On Oct. 27, New York governor Eliot Spitzer joined Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in announcing that New York state will alter a plan Spitzer announced on Sept. 21 which would have allowed immigrants to get driver’s licenses without having to provide a social security number or proof of legal residency. Instead, New York will create a three-tiered license system: an enhanced license for residents of northern and western areas of the state which can be used instead of a passport to cross the border into Canada; a license which meets the new federal standards of the Real ID Act and will only be available to citizens or legal permanent residents; and a license available to anyone who does not want to pay the extra fee for a federally approved license or who cannot provide the necessary documents—including out-of-status immigrants. This third type of license will be marked with the phrase “not for US government purposes” and will not be valid for boarding airplanes. To get this category of license, applicants will have to present a valid passport from any country and proof that they reside in New York state. (Newsday, Oct. 28; Washington Post, Oct. 28 from AP)

    “I don’t endorse giving licenses to people who are not here legally,” said Chertoff, “but federal law does allow states to make that choice.” (WP, Oct. 28) Spitzer said long, collegial conversations with Chertoff over several weeks led to the policy change. Spitzer said he has known Chertoff for more than 10 years, since he went to Harvard Law School with Chertoff’s wife. (Newsday, Oct. 29 from AP)

    New York is the fourth state to agree to the secure licenses as established by the Real ID Act, after Arizona, Vermont and Washington—all border states. New and tighter rules are soon to go into effect for border crossings. (WP, Oct. 28
    from AP) Real ID is expected to be phased in by 2013. After that, federal agencies that now allow standard state-issued licenses for identification will require the Real ID or other federally accepted identification, like a passport, for boarding a plane. (New York Times, Oct. 28)

    Immigrant advocates blasted the compromise deal. Spitzer’s move “is a lose-lose political decision that betrays his most ardent supporters and emboldens the anti-immigrant opposition,” said Chung-Wa Hong of the New York Immigration
    Coalition. “Public safety for all is not possible when we carve out a million people to be outside of the public safety rules or stigmatize them as second-class residents marked by a Scarlet Letter.” (Newsday, Oct. 28) “He’s now embracing and letting his good name be used to promote something that has been widely known in the immigrant community as one of the most anti-immigrant pieces of legislation to come out of Congress,” Hong added, referring to the Real ID Act. (NYT, Oct. 28)

    From Immigration News Briefs, Nov. 4