Spitzer Drops License Plan; Tells Fed to ‘Fix It’


Facing mounting public opposition, Gov. Eliot Spitzer has dropped his controversial plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. After meeting with New York’s Congressional delegation in the Washington, the governor held a press conference to announce that he scrapped the plan. While acknowledging the plans unpopularity, he laid the blame on the federal government, saying it has lost control of the nation’s borders and has not plan to fix it.

From Spitzer’s prepared remarks:

Over the last two months, I have been advancing a proposal that I believe would improve the safety and security of the people of my state by addressing the fact that New York is home to one million undocumented immigrants, many of whom are driving on our roads unlicensed. After serious deliberation and consultation with people I respect on all sides of this issue, I have concluded that New York State cannot successfully address this problem on its own. I am announcing today that I am withdrawing my proposal.

Here in our nation’s capital, I wanted to talk briefly about the failed federal immigration policy and what that has meant for states like New York.

I suggest to you what everyone already knows. The federal government has lost control of its borders, has allowed millions of undocumented immigrants to enter our country, and now has no solution to deal with it.

When the federal government abdicates its responsibility, states, cities, towns and villages still have to deal with the practical reality of that failure. And we face that reality every day in our schools, in our hospitals, and on our roads. In New York, that means one million undocumented immigrants, many of whom are driving without a license and without insurance, and all of whom are living in the shadows with no real identity.

While states lack the ability to fix our immigration laws, we do have the obligation to try to address some of their negative consequences. And so, many of us have tried.

In New York, we announced a comprehensive proposal to allow New Yorkers to choose from three secure licenses. This was a practical response to both the new federal travel requirements and the old federal inaction. It would have enabled us to keep our Upstate economy viable; meet the demands of federal travel requirements; make our roads safer; and bring more New Yorkers into the system, helping law enforcement officials fight crime and terrorism.

It would have restored the practice of licensing immigrants who do not have social security numbers, something New York had done for years, something eight other states — both “red” and “blue” states — do right now and something I continue to believe is principally the right thing to do to make our roads safer and our state more secure.

I continue to believe that my proposal would have improved an unsatisfactory situation. But I have listened to the legitimate concerns of the public and those who would be affected by my proposal, and have concluded that pushing forward unilaterally in the face of such strong opposition would be counterproductive.

Leadership is not solely about doing what one thinks is right. Leadership is also about listening to the public, responding to their concerns and knowing when to put aside a single divisive issue in favor of a larger agenda.

I am here today to respond to the vast majority of New Yorkers of good will who have heard my best case and yet still disagree with my proposal.

As New Yorkers, we respect that people from all over the world come to this country to work hard and to live the American dream, just like all four of my grandparents. We respect the hard and sometimes backbreaking work of those who participate daily in our economy. But at the same time we are troubled when people violate our immigration laws.

It does not take a stethoscope to hear the pulse of New Yorkers on this topic. It is also clear that, even if I could convince the public of the utility of our cause, the legislative process and any number of mounting obstacles would have prevented us from moving forward. The result would have been the defeat of this proposal and, even worse, a roadblock to solutions on so many important issues – like revitalizing our economy, lowering the cost of health care while improving quality and access; restoring excellence to our education system, and reducing property taxes. It is for these reasons that I will not move forward with this plan.

Indeed, a consequence of the federal failure is that Americans and New Yorkers are demanding a comprehensive solution. Piecemeal reform, even if practical, is unacceptable. It fails to address the many important, competing interests and values. I underestimated that sentiment in putting forward this proposal.

Beyond the crisis of illegal immigration that I have tried to address in some small way, please allow me this brief observation about another crisis – the crisis of political discourse in this country that was on full display these past two months.

While people of good faith opposed my plan for fair reasons, some partisans unleashed a response that has become all too familiar in American politics. In New York, forces quickly mobilized to prey on the public’s worst fears by turning what we believe is a practical security measure into a referendum on immigration.

Political opponents equated minimum-wage, undocumented dishwashers with Osama Bin Laden. Newspaper headlines equated a drivers’ license for an undocumented migrant laborers with a “Passport to Terror” and a “License to Kill.” Based on the New Yorkers I speak to each and every day, I feel confident in saying that this rhetoric is wildly out of step with mainstream values — doing nothing to offer solutions and everything to exploit fear.

In his new book, political analyst Ron Brownstein calls this a crisis of “hyperpartisanship,” a crisis which has “unnecessarily inflamed our differences and impeded progress against our most pressing challenges.”

Nothing reflects the result of hyperpartisanship more than the current immigration debate, which has become so toxic that anytime a practical proposal is put forward, it is shot down before it can even be weighed on its merits.

The consequence of this fear-mongering is paralysis.

Here are the facts:

Tomorrow, undocumented workers will not stop driving.

The federal government is not going to deport one million undocumented workers from New York by the end of this year, any more than it did last year or the year before.

And we can be sure that those who beat their chests the loudest will still have no solution at all.

As Attorney General, I often had to step into the enormous vacuum left by a federal government that did not embrace its most fundamental responsibilities. Whether it was ensuring fair play in the markets, protecting the environment, enforcing labor laws or product safety, time and again, the Attorney General’s office was forced to step into the void left by federal inaction.

As Governor, it has not been much different. Whether it’s health care, climate change, education or, in this case immigration, states are feeling the brunt of federal abdication and conscious neglect of a problem that is crying out for a solution.

But what I have learned here is that, while there are times when states should be laboratories, immigration is not one of them. It’s too complex and too macro a challenge to be solved by a patchwork of state policies. But the reality of 14 million undocumented immigrants nationwide and one million in New York isn’t going away. So my challenge to the federal government is this: fix it. Fix the problem so the states won’t face the local impact.

With that, I look forward to getting back to an agenda that addresses the needs of all New Yorkers.