January 24, 2007
A Promise on Immigration Now a Problem for Spitzer
By NINA BERNSTEIN
In his campaign for governor, Eliot Spitzer repeatedly expressed support for the licensing of all New York drivers regardless of their immigration status. Now expectations are running high among those urging the governor to change policies that deny licenses to 250,000 drivers in the state, most because they cannot prove they are legal immigrants.
Yesterday, immigrant advocacy groups met in Albany with David J. Swarts, the new motor vehicles commissioner, to press for new rules. They want the state to accept documents like foreign passports as proof of identity without also requiring a valid yearlong visa or other evidence of legal immigration status, a policy that state motor vehicles offices adopted in 2004.
The groups’ efforts are spurring vigorous opposition from an organization, the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License, that welcomed the Pataki administration policies as a needed crackdown on license fraud and as the kind of national security measure demanded by the 9/11 attacks. The conflict, and Mr. Spitzer’s history as the attorney general who successfully defended the Pataki licensing policy in court, has put the new governor in an uncomfortable position.
Christine Anderson, the governor’s spokeswoman, tried to dispel the impression created by the clash of advocates that action was imminent.
“It’s not an easy answer at this point,” she said, stressing that no plan was on the table and that no change would be made before “an exhaustive review” of all the security considerations. “There are a lot of factors to review.”
Still, Ms. Anderson confirmed that the governor was committed to seeking a more inclusive licensing system. “It’s something Eliot feels strongly,” she said. “He feels that some of these restrictions may have gone too far, that we need to examine them, taking into consideration all the security concerns, but that we wouldn’t unnecessarily keep people who should have licenses from getting them.”
Last June, an appellate court upheld the policy as a reasonable exercise of discretion by the motor vehicles commissioner. As a legal holding, that means that a reversal of the policy is equally discretionary. But in political terms the ruling — now on appeal itself — offers little cover from criticism by those opposed to letting illegal immigrants renew or obtain driver’s licenses.
Immigrant advocacy groups say the need for a resolution is urgent. Every month, the licenses of about 3,000 more drivers expire and cannot be renewed. Typically, those denied a license are among an estimated 650,000 illegal immigrants in New York and 11 million nationwide, though some legal immigrants also have been affected.
On the other side, Neil Berro, a spokesman for the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License, said the organization “takes very, very seriously the governor’s comments when he was a candidate” and is mobilizing to prevent any weakening of New York State licensing requirements. The New York-based group, which held a news conference outside City Hall last week, includes some 9/11 families as well as advocates for restricting immigration.
“This is not really an immigration issue, this is an identification question,” Mr. Berro said. “We had massive terrorism in this country, and driver’s licenses were used by terrorists to confuse and cover their tracks.”
Supporters of the license crackdown have cited the need to keep criminals, as well as terrorists, from exploiting weaknesses in the system. Taxi drivers who used multiple driving licenses to hide bad records, con artists, and parents avoiding child support payments were among those who have used fake Social Security numbers that were not verified until the crackdown.
Advocates for immigrants argue that security will be enhanced by a licensing system that not only verifies the Social Security numbers of those who have them, but encourages those who do not have a Social Security card to use a genuine alternative. They said they were encouraged by an hourlong meeting with Commissioner Swarts yesterday.
“It really felt like it was exploratory,” said Amy Sugimori, who is on the steering committee of the Immigrants Rights to a Driver’s License Coalition. “They’re really trying to get up to speed.”
Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella group for more than 150 organizations, said ethnic newspapers have been deluged with calls from readers asking how the governor is proposing to fulfill his campaign promise.
“The timetable is important, otherwise people are going to start doubting he was sincere,” she said. “It’s not something that becomes easier with the passage of time.”
Among the complicating factors is the most recent ruling in the 2005 lawsuit brought against the Pataki administration by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“The limitations that plaintiffs would impose on the ability to identify an undocumented alien who is working to promote his family’s financial security would also hinder the detection of an undocumented alien who is working to advance the destructive ends of a terrorist organization,” wrote the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court for the First Department.
“This court is not unsympathetic to the predicament of the otherwise law-abiding undocumented foreign national,” it added. But it concluded, “Plaintiffs’ remedy, if any, lies with Congress, which alone has the power to set immigration policy, to institute a guest worker program or to grant amnesty.”
Another complication is the Real ID Act of 2005, which requires all states to meet a uniform standard of issuing licenses by May 2008, including proof of legal status. No federal regulations have yet implemented the measure, and there is growing concern that it is unworkable.
For a link to the NY Times article click HERE.