Spitzer’s New Driver’s License Policy “Imperfect,” Critics Say

Responding to an aria of criticism from various quarters, including some within his own party, governor Eliot Spitzer announced a three-tier driver’s licensing system that addresses the state’s public safety issues as well as homeland security concerns.

Unlike in the previous proposal, which made no distinction between the driver’s licenses of citizens and those who’re in the U.S. legally and those residing illegally, the new policy doesn’t blur the lines between a U.S. citizen, a legal resident alien, and an illegal immigrant.

Democratic assemblyman Adam Bradley called the revised plan “silly,” asking, “Why even do it?”

Stephen Redicker, executive director of Face to Face, a Mount Kisco-based non-profit, described the new plan as “awkward” and “imperfect,” but he added that “this was the best the governor could do” given that state governments don’t have the final say in immigration-related matters.

The just-announced policy, which the Spitzer administration worked out with the Department of Homeland Security and the New York D.M.V. will give New Yorkers the option to choose from three different kinds of licenses, depending on their immigration status.

Jennifer Givner, Mr. Spitzer’s spokeswoman, said the plan was devised without pressure from the Department of Homeland Security. However, Mr. Redicker believes that had the governor not revised his “original plan,” the federal government would’ve “stepped in and declared it “illegal.”

The Enhanced Driver’s License, which motor vehicle offices will start issuing by the summer of next year, will be for U.S. citizens only. It’ll be as secure as a passport and may be used as one by those who need to travel to Canada and Mexico. This document, will however, not be valid for travel outside continental U.S.

The second type, the Real ID, is a federally-approved license, compliant with the Real ID Act—a federal law passed in 2005 that attempts to reduce the risk of terrorism by enhancing the authenticity of a state-issued ID—that’ll be used for boarding a plane or for entering federal facilities. This will be available only to lawful residents (including citizens and non-citizens, with valid visas or green cards).

It’s the third category, the standard New York driver’s license, which will be open to illegal immigrants (as well as to citizens and lawful residents too). Like the two other licenses, this won’t be a federally approved document and will be marked, “Not for U.S. Government Purposes.”

It’ll only be used as a state ID and allow drivers access to roads within the U.S.

The Spitzer administration is still moving forward with his policy of issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. In light of his new plan, however, it’s been rolled back by a whole year, from December 2007 to the end of 2008 to coincide with the implementation of the Real ID Act that goes into effect on May 11, 2008.

David Leopold, an attorney with the American Immigration Lawyers Association said, Mr. Spitzer’s revised plan is a “realistic approach” to public safety. “I’d much prefer a licensed driver than not know who’s out there, driving,” he said.

But the Real ID program, he said, is of “questionable constitutional legality” and “encroaches on the states’ right to govern themselves. The Real ID will be an unfunded mandate to the states.” he said.

While the new plan addresses the homeland security concerns, it defeats the whole purpose of the public service benefits promised in the earlier plan, Mr. Bradley said. “The positive aspects of the earlier plan do not occur in the second plan,” he added.

“In creating the three-tier license plan, the governor has tried to come up with a vehicle that most people could live with. Unfortunately, the plan doesn’t go far enough in any direction to appease everyone,” said Mr. Redicker.

It puts undocumented immigrants in a “quandary.” The plan, while gives them an identity, places them at risk with law enforcement agencies. “The law enforcement agencies could use [the plan] at this point to improperly detain them,” he added.

Carola Bracco, executive director of Neighbors Link, a social aid group that helps fresh Latino immigrants to integrate into society, believes the plan will be “hard to implement because it’ll cause a lot of consternation to undocumented immigrants.” She however, declined to say why.

In presenting his program at a lecture at New York University, Mr. Spitzer said, the license program provides an “enforcement database.” “When law enforcement is looking for a suspect, that’s where they go,” Mr. Spitzer said. “Yet, because we’ve denied driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, there’s an entire population of people in New York, who exist completely outside the system.”

The plan, which didn’t require a Social Security number, had been bitterly denounced on grounds that it was a recipe for national security disaster. Critics argued that by waiving the Social Security requirement, it’d leave the licensing system vulnerable to abuse by those who to want to harm U.S. interests.

In lieu of a social security number, motor vehicle offices would accept other documents of identification, such as a passport. “

“The governor has had many bad ideas, but this is the worst one yet,” State senator Vincent L. Leibell said. “We’re talking about terrorism here. 18 of the 19 9/11 hijackers had some sort of identification on them. The driver’s license might seem like a small piece of document, but it’s a breeder document that can lead to other forms of identification from bank accounts to leases.”

“The governor says he’ll have specially trained D.M.V. clerks to recognize counterfeit passports. But with close to 200 countries in the world today, it’ll be difficult for them to tell a fake from a genuine. They can’t handle it,” he added.

Echoing a similar sentiment Bob Farley, chief counsel to the Senate Standing Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs identified two key problems: (1)  a foreign passport is susceptible to forgery and (2) illegal aliens, who know that obtaining driver’s licenses will not only bring them into the D.M.V., but also into the federal databases will be hesitant to share correct information about themselves.

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