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.