Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Latest License Plan Angers Almost Everyone

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has been in the national spotlight since his controversial announcement in September that he would grant undocumented immigrants driver's licenses. In the face of strong criticism from the Republicans and dropping approval ratings in opinion polls, late last month Spitzer offered a new plan - a three-tiered policy that will offer different licenses for people with various immigration status.

This time, Spitzer found himself a powerful partner and supporter- the Department of Homeland Security. But a number of people who backed the initial proposal, including many immigrant rights groups, are angry at what they see as a betrayal. And many who opposed the initial proposal do not like this one either.

A Federal Seal of Approval

In a joint press conference with Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, Spitzer unveiled his new license plan, five weeks after he introduced his initial proposal to offer a driver's license to any New Yorker who wanted one, regardless of immigration status. Under the revised plan, American citizens and legal residents will be able to apply for a license that meet the requirements of the REAL ID Act. This would allow them to board a plane and enter federal buildings. A second type of license, also available to citizens and legal residents, will allow its holders to cross New York-Canadian border without carrying a passport. Both licenses are federally approved.

But the real controversy surrounds the third kind of license. It is available to undocumented immigrants as well as legal residents and citizens who choose not to have the first two types of licenses. This license is only valid for driving and insurance. It will be marked "Not for U.S. government purposes."

" The comprehensive plan we have developed makes our state more secure by bringing more people into the system and provides the greatest number of people with the greatest amount of security possible," said Spitzer. "The new system provides New Yorkers with the option of three secure licenses that will offer New Yorkers maximum choices for driver's licenses, uphold the strictest security standard and ensure the economic vitality of Upstate New York."

Chertoff, while saying he does not endorse giving licenses to people who are not here legally, added that federal law does allow states to make that choice. “What we can do is insist that licenses that do not meet federal requirements be clearly so labeled,” said Chertoff. “New York has agreed to do that. In sum, that clarification, along with implementing REAL ID and enhanced driver’s licenses, represents a major step forward for security, both for New York and for the country. Accordingly, I’m pleased to have reached this agreement.”

A Boost for the REAL ID

Despite the governor's insistence that he did not change his policy due to the heavy opposition, the new plan is widely seen as a compromise between a governor who is desperately seeking support from his own constituency and a federal agency that is struggling to persuade states to adopt a stricter license program that sets national standards for state-issued identification cards. These could be issued only to applicants who can prove citizenship or legal immigration status.

That program is based on the REAL ID Act. Initiated by a recommendation from the 9/11 commission, the REAL ID aims to set = stricter and standardized regulations in an effort to keep terrorists and illegal immigrants from getting U.S. identification cards or driver's licenses. Once the program is implemented, all ID holders of state identification cards and driver’s licenses will have to renew them in person by 2013. The will be required to present a form of photo identification and documents proving date of birth, Social Security number (or verification of ineligibility) and proof of residence.

Critics of the program have cited privacy concerns and threat of identity theft and say the REAL ID could cost more than $10 billion a year. Seventeen states have passed laws to rejecting it. Winning support from a big state like New York could be a big boost for the REAL ID.

Creating Controversy

The political storm over the license plan has presented Spitzer with him biggest challenge in his 10-month-old governorship. According to a poll by Siena Research Institute, 72 percent of New Yorkers did not support Spitzer’s original plan. His approval rate has fallen to 42 percent.

And the debate has entered the presidential campaign. Senator Hilary Clinton, a front-runner for the Democratic presidential candidacy, stumbled when asked about Spitzer’s proposal during the Democratic candidates debate in Philadelphia on October 30.

" What Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform," said Clinton during the televised debate. "Well, I just want to add, I did not say it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do."

The remark, supportive but vague, immediately drew criticism from her Democratic competitors as well as Republican presidential hopefuls. Both former Senator Carolina John Edwards and Senator of Barack Obama went after her during the debate.

“ Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of two minutes just a few minutes ago,” said Edwards.

“ I was confused on Senator Clinton’s answer. I can’t tell whether she was for it or against it,” Obama said.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was especially harsh. He told reporters in New Hampshire: "She is known for taking one position with one audience and another position with another audience. ...What they didn't know is she can actually take two positions in front of the same audience."

To quickly control the damage, Clinton officially voiced her support for Spitzer's three-tier plan just a few hours after her appearance at the debate.

" Senator Clinton supports governors like Governor Spitzer who believe they need such a measure to deal with the crisis caused by this administration's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform," her campaign said in a statement. "As president, her goal will be to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would make this unnecessary."

“ Senator Clinton broadly supports measures like the ones being advocated by Governor Spitzer,” added Clinton spokesperson Phil Singer. “But there are details that still need to be worked out.”

A Scarlet ‘I’

Clinton may not be clear where she stands on the latest version of Spitzer’s plan. But groups representing immigrants have left no doubt of their position: They do not like it.

Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, called the lower-tiered license “scarlet letter” for illegal immigrants, and the governor’s change of plan “complete betrayal.”

“ What a political flip,” said Hong, who organized a protest on October 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.”

John Liu, the City Council member from Flushing, Queens, who also attended the rally, said he was confused by the governor’s change of position.

“ Now the new development is not going to help the situation in terms of making sure people are properly licensed and insured to operate motor vehicles,” Liu said. “This is a new segregation in New York.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of New York Civil Liberties Union, said the separate license could be an invitation for law enforcement to arrest undocumented immigrants who carry it.

“ Real ID -- a national ID card -- will facilitate the tracking of Americans’ movements,” said Lieberman in a prepared statement. “Each swipe of the card will leave a digital fingerprint that can be centralized into one national database to track Americans’ activities. Coming from the administration that brought us the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping, the possibilities are endless, as is the potential for abuse.”

Those Opposed Stay Opposed

Meanwhile, many people who were against Spitzer’s original license plan do not like the three-tiered plan either.

This includes Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had come out against the initial idea. When asked about the new one, the mayor told CNN, “I still don’t think that is where we need to be.” In particular, Bloomberg expressed concern about whether any of the three licenses would enable a person to buy a gun. Previously David Swartz, state commissioner of motor vehicles, had indicated the license for undocumented immigrants would be sufficient identification for purchasing a firearm. Sources in the governor's office denied this.

Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola, a member of the New York State Association of County Clerks who had filed a lawsuit against the original plan, said the suit would continue – despite Spitzer’s revisions. In counties outside New York City, Long Island, and Westchester, county clerk offices act as agents of the DMV to issue driver’s license. Some clerks have vowed not to issue licenses to people who cannot prove they are in the country legally.

" He hasn't changed anything," Merola said of Spitzer and his three-license proposal. "He's still looking to do the same thing that he was looking to do a month ago."

The State Senate, with a Republican majority, also passed legislation to overturn Spitzer’s plan. But the bill will most likely fail in the Democrat-dominated State Assembly. For their part, Republicans in the Assembly have said they will file a lawsuit to stop what they call as "illegal plan.” which was announced Saturday. The Republican leader of the Assembly, James Tedisco, said issuing licenses to undocumented immigrant would "make our state and nation a less secure, less safe place."

Responding to Spitzer’s latest proposal, Tedisco said, “"What he's done is make more people upset from both sides — those that supported him and those who were against him."

The governor plans to implement the three-tier licenses next year.

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A resident of Brooklyn, he is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.  

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