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Hillary slipped. Eliot Spitzer slipped and then split. If Americans had looked at the facts, both would have landed on their feet. The junior senator and governor of New York demonstrated the pragmatism and candor sorely needed in the immigration debate, and were sadly tongue-lashed for their wise judgment
Two weeks ago, Sen. Clinton (D-N.Y.) made her first unfashionable maneuver of the primaries. Questioned by Tim Russert as to whether or not she supported Gov. Spitzer’s unpopular plan to allow state driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, Hillary was hesitant to give a clear response. The next afternoon she clarified the endorsement, pledging support for local administrators like Spitzer who must “deal with the crisis caused by this administration’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
She was lambasted. He was shellacked. This past Wednesday, the Governor was forced to kill the brilliant bill.
According to 70 percent of New Yorkers, the proposal went too far. Lou Dobbs ranted about granting privileges where none are due. The Wall Street Journal, one of the loudest advocates for open borders, unfairly dubbed the proposal a recipe for voter fraud. New York Democrats who had originally supported Spitzer claimed that the governor’s compromise with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) betrayed their civil libertarian ideals.
No one understood the plan.
In late September, Spitzer motioned to change a Department of Motor Vehicles policy so that undocumented immigrants would become eligible for full driver’s privileges. Days later, he changed the law to meet DHS regulations, proposing in its stead a split three-tier system of licenses: one for basic driving privileges, one for U.S.-Canada border transit, and another federally accepted license that would comply with the REAL ID Act of 2005. The policy change aimed to improve road safety and lower insurance premiums. Even more importantly, the legislation strove to bring an estimated 500,000 otherwise law-abiding New Yorkers into the system and “out of the shadows.”
Nativists opined that America’s borders would be dramatically less secure if undocumented immigrants were to acquire the de facto legitimacy that a license represents. But the border is already porous. Anywhere from 12 to 15 million undocumented immigrants are already here. The denial of licenses will not keep them from immigrating or even driving.
If Spitzer’s policy had been implemented, terrorists would not have become more likely to open bank accounts and board airliners. DHS Chieftain Michael Chertoff ’75 more than sanctioned the switch, asserting that the New York license system would become “among the most secure in the country.” Special licenses that don’t require submission of proof of legal residency are not recognized at the federal level. They only allow the carrier to operate a vehicle safely.
The three-tier system would have made local security smoother for law enforcement. As Sen. Clinton noted, officers with more records are able to identify dangerous motorists and discourage otherwise unlicensed drivers from fleeing the scene for fear of reprisal.
The favorable arguments for state and national security were analogous and fiercely thorough. Both should have been supported. The more we encourage otherwise law-abiding residents to participate in the program, the easier it will be to identify those who pose a real threat to safety.
There was, perhaps, one poignant criticism of Spitzer’s newest proposal. This past Friday in the chamber, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver posed the question, “Why would an undocumented immigrant obtain a special license, especially if it means they will be more subject to raids and deportation?”
There is sufficient reason to believe that this would not have been a concern. Under current law, if an undocumented immigrant gets into a traffic accident with no license and no insurance, he or she is immediately prosecuted at the federal level. Undocumented immigrants run a huge risk just driving to work.
Furthermore, obtaining a license signifies an effort to comply with the system, something an overwhelming number of undocumented immigrants have sought to do over the last few years.
There was a peculiar worry on the left that DMV employees would have been able to create a list of who is legal and who’s not. The notion was false. Under Spitzer’s policy, the copies of documents people submit for special licenses would have been destroyed post-verification. Even if a DMV employee were to accuse an immigrant of illegal residency or tip off police, the employee would become vulnerable to profiling charges. After all, undocumented workers wouldn’t be the only New Yorkers getting cheaper, lower-tier licenses; most Empire State residents have no need for the U.S.-Canada pass and the others don’t need the REAL ID license until May 2013.
Spitzer should have been kudized. The proposal was a welcome departure from the ideological rants that typified the immigration debate this past summer. Spitzer’s willingness to compromise and still maintain the integrity of the proposal was exemplary. His opponents did not show the same grace. Clinton, caving under election pressure, was even forced to rescind her support last Wednesday. If such polemic bombast and criticism continues, it is unlikely that comprehensive immigration reform will ever be passed in this country.
Raúl A. Carrillo ’10, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Lowell House.
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