Gov. Spitzer announced yesterday that illegal immigrants will be able to get valid New York State drivers licenses if they provide a valid and verifiable foreign passport. Spitzer hopes that the change, which reverses a four-year-old Pataki-era decision, will legitimize the 500,000-1 million undocumented immigrants who are driving in New York. In a repudiation of the federal government's stance, the governor said "We will not become part of what is propagated on the federal level that if we don't admit they are here then we can somehow not provide services. That is bad policy."
David Swarts, the New York Motor Vehicles Commissioner, thinks that the initiative will save New Yorkers $120 million in reduced insurance premiums, since unlicensed drivers are unable to sign up for insurance and unlicensed drivers are more than five times as likely to get into an accident as licensed drivers, according to AAA. The NY Times notes that this move goes against the national trend, since more states do not offer licenses to illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants applying for licenses in NY will have to meet a residency requirement.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said, "I understand the fear of 9/11 and I agree security is essential, but our nation is an immigrant nation ... and to deny law-abiding immigrant New Yorkers licenses ... is to give into that fear." Not all lawmakers agree with the plan. One Congressman from New York pointed out that the 9/11 hijackers had 35 drivers licenses, which allowed them to open bank accounts and rent cars. We'll add that if the NY State DMV is now a frontline on the War Against Terror, we are very concerned.
However, there is some more homeland security debate about Spitzer's plan. Back in 2005, Congress passed the REAL ID law, which requires states to ask for a Social Security number for a license. From the Post:
States that fail to meet the standards will lose their certification by the Department of Homeland Security, meaning that driver's licenses in those states will no longer be valid for air travel, entry to federal facilities and for tax purposes.
Travelers will now have to carry a second form of ID, like a passport, which was met with criticism yesterday.
State Homeland Security Director Michael Balboni, though, said that there were problems with the REAL ID law and the Department of Homeland Security's handling of the program, which is still in flux. He added that Social Security cards and birth certificates lack "biometric information" and NY would be part of a pilot program where license photos would be checked against others in a national database to make sure there were duplicates. Plus, if illegal immigrants had licenses, there would be a public records of true identities.
The New York Immigrant Coalition said, "Immigrant communities throughout the nation can take heart that today’s victory may begin to turn the tide toward sensible and humane reforms at the federal level." Illegal immigrants were happy, noting how they would be able to drive their children to school and drive to work.
Eight other states offer licenses to illegal immigrants: Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington.