Governor Eliot Spitzer’s controversial plan to make driver’s licenses available to all New York residents unraveled before our eyes. The culprit? Intense pressure from conservatives and lackluster support from progressives. The original plan, unveiled on September 21, would have brought New York’s undocumented immigrants–as many as 1 million people–“out of the shadows,” while improving safety and security by reducing the number of untrained, uninsured drivers and by verifying the identities of hundreds of thousands of people. Since unlicensed drivers are a factor in five times as many fatal accidents as those with licenses, the proposal to expand licensing would have significantly increased the safety of New York’s streets. But it was not to be. First, Governor Spitzer shifted course with a nonsensical multi-tiered plan that pleased no one. This week, he reversed himself again, completely abandoning any effort to provide licenses to undocumented New Yorkers. The story of what went wrong is a powerful illustration of what happens when progressive voices fail to speak out for immigration policies that benefit everyone.
From the moment Governor Spitzer announced the drivers license policy, Lou Dobbs and his junior varsity imitators immediately got to work denouncing and distorting the policy. “This governor needs training wheels,” an angry Dobbs told his audience as the debate heated up in October. Critics ignored strict new security measures in Spitzer’s proposal, like the fact that immigrants would need a verified foreign passport to obtain a license. Sensing an opportunity to boost their own ratings, elected officials stooped to new lows with comments like, “Osama bin Laden is somewhere in a cave with his den of thieves and terrorists, and he’s probably sabering the cork on some champagne right now, saying, ‘Hey, that governor’s really assisting us.'” (Thank you, New York State Assembly minority leader James Tedisco.)
GOP leaders accused the governor of helping terrorists board airplanes and the Conservative Party went so far as to release a commercial announcing that “Along the Mexican border, we lock up illegal immigrants. In New York, Governor Spitzer wants to give them driver’s licenses. Tell Spitzer he is wrong.” Many mistakenly believed that the new licenses would actually enable undocumented immigrants to vote. Close to two-thirds of New York residents opposed the plan. Yet rather than digging in to set the record straight on the issues driving public opinion, most elected officials–even those in safe seats on the left–pandered to fear and failed to give Spitzer the support he needed.
After a month of fierce debate on his original plan, Spitzer caved and sought support elsewhere: from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. He retreated from his initial policy, endorsed the federal REAL ID Act and proposed a three-tiered licensing system. Under that plan, undocumented immigrants would have been eligible for a special class of license, a nonfederally recognized ID. These new third-class licenses would have branded their holders as undocumented, making it unlikely that immigrants who live in fear of deportation would be willing to engage with the system at all and register for them. The governor’s retreat was never a successful compromise: it alienated his strongest supporters while failing to appease his fiercest critics. It comes as little surprise that this policy, too, was quickly abandoned.
What driver’s license opponents cannot admit is that undocumented immigrants are here to stay. Opposing their access to driver’s licenses implicitly endorses the effort to drive them from the country, despite the public’s opposition to mass deportation. While spending billions of dollars on massive crackdowns, detention facilities capable of holding tens of thousands and raids that separate children from their parents may succeed in driving some people out of the country, it will not induce millions of others who risked their lives to come and work in the United States to leave. And it’s a good thing, too, since we rely on them every day as workers, consumers, entrepreneurs, taxpayers and members of our community. This is the case that our leaders should have been making, instead of hiding as the poll numbers slid.
What we need are smart and fair public policies that acknowledge that undocumented immigrants are integral members of our communities and that strive to make them–and us–safe. Policies designed to make undocumented immigrants miserable, like the denial of a driver’s license, will do just that–further marginalizing people who live among us to the detriment of all. When immigrants can’t obtain a legal driver’s license, they can’t buy auto insurance–driving up rates for everyone. Many never learn the rules of the road, causing accidents. Others may be at the mercy of employers for their transportation needs, deepening the potential for exploitation.
Understanding this rationale underscores the fact that Spitzer’s new proposal is not only bad politics but bad policy, because it undermined the greatest strength of his original plan: its universality. Democratic State Senator Eric Schneiderman, one of the few brave enough to speak out in support of the original proposal, argued correctly that “our systems for licensing and insuring drivers work best for their intended purposes when everyone participates in them.” Bringing immigrants into the economic and social mainstream lifts us all up, whether the issue is eradicating exploitation in the workplace, making sure residents are not afraid to report crimes to the police or improving the safety of our roads. Governor Spitzer’s original driver’s license policy did that. A two- or three-tiered system never can. The switch back to doing nothing leaves us with the same underground society that undermines us today.
With appeals that equate immigrants with terrorists, driver’s license opponents were able to drive the discussion–and drive Spitzer right into a policy that is even worse for New York and for our country. (Other states, from New Hampshire to Idaho, have been lining up to oppose REAL ID on privacy and budgetary grounds.)
It is easy to blame Spitzer for retreating in the face of struggle, and we should. But we should also recognize that if Democrats stay silent on immigration policy at the federal and local level, they will have to live with the consequences of a multitiered society that drags us all down.