Aliens’ licenses unsafe politically at any speed
Wherever it’s been tried, embracing driver’s licenses for illegal aliens — as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and most of the Democratic presidential field did two weeks ago — has been political poison, including helping cost one Democratic governor his office.
Ever since the September 11 terrorist attacks, lawmakers who back licenses for illegal aliens have suffered, such as Gray Davis, the former California governor who was recalled in part because he signed such a bill. Those who have called for crackdowns are reaping the political rewards.
“It’s a winner in a general election; I think it’s an absolute winner in a Republican primary; and I think it’s a winner even in many states in a Democratic primary,” said Rico Oller, the former California state senator who sponsored the bill to repeal the driver’s license law Mr. Davis signed.
The issue has come to the fore-
front since New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, announced in September that his state would begin to issue licenses to illegal aliens who could present a valid passport from their home country.
At a Democratic debate, Mrs. Clinton fumbled on whether she supported her governor, but a day later her campaign announced that she generally backs the plan.
“We broadly support what Spitzer is doing,” said spokesman Phil Singer. “Obviously, there are details that still need to be worked out, but our sense is that in light of the Bush administration’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform and deal with the immigration crisis, there are many states that are acting.”
Her stance has won her support from those who say it’s time to retake the initiative after years of setbacks.
“All the candidates are either avoiding the issue or only addressing it partially or jumping on the anti-immigrant bandwagon,” said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “The driver’s license issue has hurled this challenge to the forefront of the presidential debate.”
Ms. Hong said Mrs. Clinton must fill the political vacuum and reverse the politics of the issue.
“It’s a tough issue. It’s controversial, but leaders need to use their political capital to take the poison out of this debate so that people are debating the substance,” she said.
Those who back the licenses say the issue should be an easy sell: They say it’s better to have licensed drivers on the roads, and say having identification makes their job easier. And it’s not just Democrats who support the policy: as governor of Florida, Jeb Bush backed the policy.
Seven states allow illegal aliens to get a driver’s permit of some sort: Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Just a few years ago, many others allowed the practice. But after the September 11 terrorist attacks, states began to crack down, led by Virginia, which had issued licenses to some of the hijackers.
“It’s a 90 percent political winner,” said Virginia Delegate David B. Albo, who wrote the bill and said it was an easy call since 14 of the victims killed at the Pentagon came from his legislative district. “The criminals used our lax laws to board the airplanes.”
His crackdown legislation has been copied by other states, and even the federal government has tried to crack down, passing the Real ID Act in 2005 that sets federal standards for state licenses, including the requirement that recipients be in the country legally.
Exit polls after California’s 2003 recall election found voters opposed licenses by 70 percent to 24 percent and that those who opposed licenses overwhelmingly supported Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ouster of Mr. Davis.
California state Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, a Democrat, has tried several times since 2003 to pass a bill granting licenses. Each time, Mr. Schwarzenegger has vetoed it.
“You need leaders like Eliot Spitzer who says, ‘Hey, this doesn’t make any sense,’ ” Mr. Cedillo said. “He’s saying what people have to say during these time periods of hysteria. This is a witch hunt. It’s a witch hunt that’s hurting us.”
Mr. Cedillo saw a different lesson in Mr. Davis’ 2003 recall loss. He said in addition to other problems, such as botching the state’s electricity deregulation, Mr. Davis flipflopped on licenses by promising to sign a measure but, when given the chance in his first term, vetoing a carefully crafted bill.
That, Mr. Cedillo said, cost him support among Hispanics in his 2002 re-election campaign and helped make him vulnerable for the recall. Then, just weeks before the recall vote, Mr. Davis reversed course and signed a measure that had fewer security measures.
Mr. Cedillo said this isn’t the first time that this fight has happened. The first bill to strip licenses from illegal aliens came in 1994, the last time that an anti-illegal alien sentiment grabbed California voters, and which helped Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, win re-election.
But it was all downhill for Republicans since.
“Pete Wilson became the figure Democrats could run against. And all they had to say was ‘Pete Wilson,’ and the Latino vote was 90 percent Democrat in that time period,” Mr. Cedillo said. “It became a point at which there was value for Democrats in terms of politics to be against that type of discrimination.”