The People’s Lawyer a project of the National Lawyers Guild NYC
By Ann Schneider
There’s more than meets the eye with Gov. Elliot Spitzer’s recent U-turn on granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Lost in the media-driven furor is that while Spitzer’s original goal was quite modest, his capitulation has actually made a bad situation worse.
The long arc of driver’s license reform began in the 1990s when many states began issuing licenses to people who had forms of identification that did not include a Social Security number.
For example, prior to Sept. 11, the state of New York accepted a foreign passport as proof of identity for a driver’s license. Spitzer’s goal was simply to reverse the 2002 decision of his predecessor Gov. George Pataki to require immigrants prove they were legal residents before obtaining a driver’s license.
Spitzer’s plan was propelled by the recognition there are up to 1 million undocumented immigrants living in the state, and that many of them have to either drive to get to work or as a part of their jobs. State officials felt it was more prudent to train and test drivers, than to have thousands of unlicensed, uninsured drivers on the road.
North Carolina, for one, is the only state on the East Coast that currently grants driver’s licenses to those whose legal status is undetermined; that may be why it has the lowest rate of uninsured drivers in the country. Despite the practical benefits of Spitzer’s plan, it was attacked by opponents of immigrant rights as well as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. On Oct. 26 Spitzer jettisoned his reform effort in favor of a three-tiered license plan that further marginalizes undocumented immigrants.
Under the new plan, one category of licenses would meet strict federal requirements and be available to legal residents and citizens. A second would cater to upstate residents who travel across the Canadian border frequently. A third type would permit undocumented immigrants to drive legally but will be stamped “not for federal purposes.”
It seems to have escaped Spitzer’s notice that such a blatantly segregated system is hardly inviting to undocumented immigrants. Worse, his decision makes New York only the fourth state to agree to come into compliance with the Real ID Act of 2005.
Piggybacking on a supplemental funding bill for the Iraq War, the Real ID Act was passed by Congress without a single hearing.
It essentially creates a national identity card for the first time in U.S. history, as it requires states to verify the “issuance, validity and completeness“ of every document presented in order to obtain a driver’s license. Future licenses are supposed to have a “machine-readable zone” allowing them to be swiped at airports, federal facilities and anywhere else authorities choose to mandate.
It will set up a national database containing Social Security numbers and birth certificate information readily accessible to state and federal agencies. Privacy advocates call Real ID “one-stop shopping for identity thieves.” Security experts are divided on the usefulness of Real ID. The Sept. 11 Commission did not recommend that states require proof of legal status before issuing a license, as the Sept. 11 hijackers entered the country with valid visas and obtained drivers licenses under their own names.
The Department of Homeland Security’s estimates that it will cost states at least $23 billion to implement Real ID by its final 2013 deadline. Much of the costs will likely be passed along through higher driver’s license fees. Seven states have passed laws against implementing Real ID, and an additional 10 state legislatures have approved resolutions calling on Congress to repeal the act.
Thanks to Spitzer, New York now joins Washington, Arizona and Vermont as the only states that have agreed to come into compliance with Real ID.
In the end, the governor has done nothing to make us more secure either on the roads or in the skies. Instead, he has managed to both perpetuate discrimination and give credibility to one of the Bush administration’s most dubious initiatives.
[Editor’s Note: As The Indypendent goes to press, Spitzer appears to be making another U-turn on the issue. The governor is taking a “wait-and-see” approach to offering Real ID licenses and may begin moving to oppose the controversial federal program.