Governor Accused of Betraying Principles
Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s retreat from his plan to permit illegal immigrants to obtain the same kind of driver’s licenses as other New Yorkers drew angry reactions yesterday from civil liberties advocates and immigrant groups, some of whom described the shift as a stunning betrayal.
The governor has been under fierce assault from conservative groups and others since proposing last month to allow illegal immigrants to get New York driver’s licenses. But joined by the federal secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, in Washington yesterday, the governor announced a starkly different version of his plan.
It calls for separate tiers of licenses. New Yorkers who could provide stringent proof of legal residency could get the new federally recognized license known as Real ID. The licenses available to illegal residents would not serve as federal identification.
“What a huge political flip,” said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.
“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,” Ms. Hong said.
She said having separate licenses would amount to a scarlet letter for illegal immigrants. “I know I’m speaking for millions of immigrants when I say I just feel so thoroughly betrayed.”The separate licenses could also serve as an invitation for law enforcement to arrest anyone carrying one on immigration charges, said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. She added that the new proposal could send illegal immigrants further into the shadows, compelling them to drive with forged or no licenses and without insurance.
“This flip-flopping is bowing to the fear-mongering of the Bush administration and turns New York into a poster child for policies based on fear rather than public safety,” she said.
The move comes less than a week after Mr. Spitzer met with Senate Democrats and vowed to keep fighting for his driver’s license plan, which many viewed as antithetical to the Real ID law.
Real ID is expected to be phased in by 2013. After that, federal agencies that now allow standard state-issued licenses for identification will require the Real ID or other federally accepted identification, like a passport, for boarding a plane.
Lawmakers in several states have opposed the legislation, saying it would be costly to implement — the states must pay for it — and compromise privacy.
Seventeen states have passed laws defying it, and many others are considering following suit, according to a Web site sponsored by the A.C.L.U., realnightmare.org, which tracks such bills.
With Mr. Spitzer’s endorsement, New York would be the first big state to embrace the plan, Ms. Lieberman said.
“Real ID was on the road to failure, and it is indeed disappointing that Governor Spitzer is coming to its rescue,” she said.
Some people, though, called yesterday’s announcement a step in the right direction.
“I’m pleased to see the governor is finally listening to the people of New York State,” said Kathleen Marchione, president of the New York State Association of County Clerks, which opposed issuing illegal immigrants standard licenses.
Among the issues still of concern, Ms. Marchione said, is whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to get licenses at all. More than a dozen of the county clerks — who operate the Department of Motor Vehicles’ offices upstate — had said they would not carry out the earlier plan, some vowing to report to the local sheriff license applicants who could not prove residency.
Some supporters of the governor’s former plan said yesterday’s announcement seemed to strike a good balance.
“We need a policy that is safer and more secure,” said Siobhan Dennehy, executive director of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, “and this combination does that.”