2007-10-26 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

Licensing Undocumented/Illegal Aliens: Fear And Loathing Over Governor's Plan
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Everybody seems to have an opinion about Governor Eliot Spitzer's plan to provide driver's licenses to undocumented aliens.

In fact, you can often tell how people feel about his proposal simply by listening to how they frame the issue.

Some ask, "Should undocumented aliens be provided with documentation that would guarantee that there is a record of their existence?"

Others ask, "Should illegal aliens be provided with a driver's license, an action that could possibly lead to the termination of our ability to use our licenses to board aircraft as well as voter fraud and the increased possibility of terrorism?"

The first group, of course, would agree with the Governor that licensing immigrants is the way to go.

The second is opposed to the plan, fearing that it would cause all sorts of problems, including the possibility that our state licenses would no longer be good for getting on aircraft and for other identification purposes, such as picking up mail at a post office or opening a bank account.

And, I fear, that second group might well be right.

Without discussing the pros and cons of the issue, however, I find it hard to understand how the Governor can be angered by opponents of his plan when nearly three-fourths of his constituents are opposed. "[The opposition to the bill] is what happens to you when you govern and make tough decisions, and you do the things that you believe are right. I don't govern based on polls," the Governor said recently.

When he says that he was elected to govern, not to follow the crowd, does that mean he will no longer listen to the voice of the people when it speaks? If that is true, then he will have a short and unhappy tenure in his office.

There are several things that worry me about the Governor's plan, besides the seminal issue that people should not be rewarded for doing something illegal.

There is a little federal law called the Real ID Act of 2005.

As much as the New York Times and other progressive groups oppose the law and say that it should be changed, the fact is, it exists and it will control what happens should we supply identification to illegals.

The law requires several changes to both the physical state ID's and to the process of issuing them.

The act requires state DMV's to check an individual's citizenship status and to verify the authenticity of any documents provided to get the license. It also requires that by 2013 licenses have some sort of biometric indicator and heliographic components, so that the licenses cannot be counterfeited.

Right now, participation in the federal law is voluntary. In 2013, however, it becomes mandatory and any state that does not comply will find its licenses useless for boarding aircraft, obtaining passports, etc.

As much as the Governor and his supporters say that the act is wrong and will probably be changed by the 2013 deadline, there is no indication that Congress has any intention to change that law, particularly in light of September 11, 2001 and the fact that many of the hijackers used phony driver's licenses to get into the country from Canada and other places.

Congressman Anthony Weiner, who represents a portion of Rockaway in the House of Representatives, says that he is not opposed to giving licenses to everybody, but that the act needs to be addressed now, before New Yorkers have problems using their licenses as identification.

In 2004, then-Governor George Pataki, sent letters to those whose social security numbers did not match their government file. The letter said that the driver's licenses of those people would be revoked unless they could prove their identity.

In many cases, it was a question of newly married women not notifying the state of their name change. In other cases, people had used social security numbers belonging to others to get their licenses.

Many progressive organizations, however, believed that the state had no right to ask for verifying information, that it was racist because many of those who got the letters were Hispanic.

As with many issues in this city and this state, it quickly became a racial issue, the same fate that has befallen the Governor's most recent plan.

Immigrant groups chimed in, claiming that those opposed to the Governor's plan must be racist.

A two-tiered plan that would have allowed for non-driver ID's for undocumented aliens was dismissed by immigrant groups as racist, even though it would offer a good compromise because it would allow the government to identify undocumented aliens and at the same time, keep the driver's license pool for citizens and those who are here legally.

That proposal could even provide driver's licenses with "Illegal Immigrant" overprinting the face of the license in a bright color to differentiate it from a regular license.

The Governor, however, keeps pushing, stating that his plan would make America safer, by allowing the state to get information on undocumented aliens and force them to both drive legally and to have insurance on their vehicles.

I like the two-tiered system.

Supporters of the Governor, however, do not.

Richard Clark, the former White House Coordinator of Security and Counter-Terrorism, likes the Governor's plan.

"States should act to register immigrants, [both] legal and illegal, who use our roadways as New York is doing. From a law enforcement and security perspective, it is far preferable for a state to know who is living there and driving on its roads, and to have their photograph and their address on file, than to have large numbers of people living in our cities whose identity is totally unknown to the government."

The Governor's plan would call for applicants to have their photographs taken and to present documentation that they are who they say they are, including a valid and current passport.

There are questions, however, over the identification process. How will state officials vet a foreign passport and insure that the person holding the passport is actually the person applying for the license? Will the process keep terrorists from procuring phony identifications?

Even officials at the state's Board of Elections have a concern.

The concern is that driver's licenses are often used at the polls to check and make sure the voter is who he or she says they are. The Governor's plan would make that check much more difficult, if not untenable.

"I suppose it would be tough to catch someone who wanted to take advantage of the [voting] system and try to get a number of people registered who aren't citizens by getting them driver's licenses," a spokesperson for that state agency said.

On Monday, the State Senate, after a very acrimonious debate, voted to derail the Governor's plan by a vote of 39 to 19. Some of the Democrats in the Senate called the Republicans who voted for the bill "racist," but it is clear that there is more than racism working in the move to stop the new licenses.

Spitzer said that he has the authority to issue the new licenses on his own, and that the Senate vote would not deter him.

The Democratic-controlled Assembly is expected to vote out a similar measure shortly.

In addition, a town clerk in upstate New York has filed suit to stop the Governor's implementation of the new procedures.

In any case, there are so many questions that need to be answered that the Governor should, at the least, put the plan on the back burner until there are valid answers to those important questions.

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