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Plan to Provide Illegal Immigrants with Driver’s Licenses Stirs Debate

November 1, 2007 at 6:30 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Next, driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, the arguments for and against, after some background.

New York Senator Hillary Clinton seemed to be caught off-guard Tuesday during the Democratic debate in Philadelphia, when “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert asked her about a plan by New York’s governor, Democrat Eliot Spitzer, to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

TIM RUSSERT, Host, NBC’s “Meet the Press”: You told the Nashua, New Hampshire, editorial board “it makes a lot of sense.” Why does it make a lot of sense to give an illegal immigrant a driver’s license?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: We know in New York we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds.

RAY SUAREZ: Spitzer’s plan is a means of complying with the Real ID law, which Congress passed in 2005 in response to the 9/11 attacks. The law insists that states require Social Security numbers to obtain a driver’s license.

Spitzer wants to create a three-tiered system of driver’s licenses, with one class reserved for illegal immigrants who can’t legally obtain a Social Security number. The license would allow them to drive and secure car insurance, but it could not be used as a federally approved ID.

Last weekend, Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff gave Spitzer’s plan his qualified OK.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, Homeland Security Secretary: I do not endorse giving licenses to people who are not here legally, but federal law does allow states to make that choice. What we can do is insist that licenses that do not meet federal requirements be clearly so labeled. New York has agreed to do that.

In sum, that clarification, along with implementing Real ID enhanced driver’s licenses, represents a major step forward for security, both for New York and for the country.

The cost of implementing IDs

Clark Kent Ervin
Aspen Institute
There's no question but that illegal aliens will continue to reside in this country contrary to law; there's also no question that they will continue to drive.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, legislatures in more than a dozen states have already voted not to comply with the Real ID Act, calling it an unfunded federal mandate that would cost millions of dollars to implement.

Now, two different views of the driver's license issue from Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, and from Clark Kent Ervin, he served as inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2004. He is now director of the Homeland Security Program at the Aspen Institute in Washington.

And Clark Kent Ervin, do you support the idea of giving people who are living and working in this country illegally the ability to get a driver's license?

CLARK KENT ERVIN, Aspen Institute: I do, Ray, and that's because that's really reality. There's no question but that illegal aliens will continue to reside in this country contrary to law; there's also no question that they will continue to drive.

So the only issue is whether it's in our interest as a counterterrorism measure to know as much about them as possible. This plan would encourage illegal aliens to give information about themselves, their names, their addresses, their photographs. And experience has proved, after 9/11, that the more information we have about terrorists, the more likely we are to discover them after the fact and, for that matter, head off potential terror attacks.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark Krikorian, do you support the idea of giving people who are residing or working in the country illegally the ability to get a driver's license?

MARK KRIKORIAN, Center for Immigration Studies: Absolutely not. Our national identification system is not centralized like in most countries. It's decentralized. The states run it. The driver's license is our national ID system.

And what we do by giving illegal immigrants any form of official government ID, a driver's license, however it's qualified, is we incorporate them into our national ID system. We essentially almost legalize their presence, if you will, not in a formal sense under immigration law, but we recognize and officially give them the stamp of approval of the government.

This helps them embed themselves in our society, because you can't live in a modern society without being part of the ID system, and it makes it impossible, or much more difficult, to deter future illegal immigration and to encourage people to give up and deport themselves, if you will, which is an important goal of immigration enforcement.

Three-tier system in New York

Mark Krikorian
Center for Immigration Studies
In fact, a lot of the immigrant advocacy groups have spoken out against this most recent version of the proposal, because they're afraid the list of people getting these illegal alien IDs would then be a starting point for enforcement.

RAY SUAREZ: But in the particular case of New York, the three-tier system gives a credential that acknowledges up front the illegal status of that person, but it also gives them a road test. It checks whether they can drive. Wouldn't you want both those things?

MARK KRIKORIAN: No, I don't, because what it does, in the final analysis, is formally accepts their residence in the United States. Just because it says "Not for Identification Purposes," which is what the ID would say, doesn't mean that it won't turn into a regular ID.

You won't be able to use it to board a plane, that's true, under federal law. But Tennessee tried this several years ago. And before the first license came out of the laminating machine, the state police there said, "Yes, but we're going to take it for ID anyway." Once the government gives you an ID, you have an ID. You are able to borrow into society legally.

RAY SUAREZ: Clark Kent Ervin, what about that, that the card, even if it is issued, it's, in effect, saying this person is not here legally, it would gradually, through mission creep almost, become a legal ID and an acknowledgment of someone's presence in the country?

CLARK KENT ERVIN: Right. Well, actually, you know, it really is just a parade of horribles argument to argue that that, on its face, it would say essentially that this person is not here legally and would bring those people out of the shadows. You know, Mark said that it would actually embed them, as a practical matter, in our national ID system. That's exactly right.

And then he said that they would kind of burrow in. It's really quite the opposite. They would come out of the shadows. Again, they'd have an incentive, because they wouldn't be deported, to essentially declare themselves as illegal. This would not allow them to board an airplane; this would not allow them to cross a border. It would simply allow them to drive when, in fact, they're going to drive anyway.

And the question is, as I say, do we want information about them if, God forbid, some minority of them prove to be terrorists?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what about that out-of-the-shadows argument? Respond to that specifically.

MARK KRIKORIAN: What shadows? Several senators recently sponsored an event in the Capitol building itself with illegal immigrants speaking about why other senators should support an amnesty. This idea of shadows is really not all that accurate.

There's two claims being made here. One is that the illegal alien license will identify illegal immigrants but, at the same time, that it will encourage people to come forward if they're illegal and be signed up. Both of those things aren't going to happen.

In fact, a lot of the immigrant advocacy groups have spoken out against this most recent version of the proposal, because they're afraid the list of people getting these illegal alien IDs would then be a starting point for enforcement.

Identifying illegal aliens

Clark Kent Ervin
Aspen Institute
There's no way we could, even if we wanted to -- even if there were a consensus in this country, which there isn't -- to deport all 12 million to 14 million, however many illegal aliens there are in this country.

RAY SUAREZ: We'll get to that later, but on your point that this wouldn't be out of the shadows, the people in the New York legislation, as I understand it, who would get that third-tier license would have to provide a passport from the foreign nation they come from and other forms of identification in order to clear the bar in New York state. Wouldn't knowing who they are and where they're from be better than not knowing where they are or where they're from?

MARK KRIKORIAN: As long as the next step is their detention and deportation from the United States, yes. But there's a tension there. No one's going to provide that information if the result is the law is now going to be enforced and they're going to be made to leave.

But at the same time, if we are registering them and signing them up, we are essentially saying, "We're not going to deport you." It's a kind of de facto amnesty. So we can't have it both ways; it's one or the other. If it's a way of finding out who the illegals are and removing them, I'm OK with that, but then that defeats the purpose, because they're not going to be driving.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, respond to that point directly, that if people show up in a government office and say, "I'm in the country illegally," the next step should be to get them out of the country.

CLARK KENT ERVIN: Well, we've had that debate already this year, and the decision was made for the foreseeable future that we're not going to deport illegal aliens. And, frankly, as a political matter, I don't see that changing. It's a question of whether it should change or whether it shouldn't, but the question is that it won't.

And furthermore, as a practical matter, there's no way we could, even if we wanted to -- even if there were a consensus in this country, which there isn't -- to deport all 12 million to 14 million, however many illegal aliens there are in this country.

So the question is, given that they're going to be here, at least some huge percentage of them, for the foreseeable future, what do we do about that as a counterterrorism measure?

And as you say, they will have to give tremendous amount of information about themselves, much more than is typically the case for driver's licenses now, a foreign passport that's machine readable with biometrics. They will be scanned, and they will be reviewed by people who are trained in fraud detection. So we'll know a tremendous amount about these people if, as I say, a small minority of them turn out to be terrorists after the fact.

RAY SUAREZ: What about housekeeping matters? States are jurisdictions that have to run certain functions inside the state, checking the people know how to drive, know how to signal a turn and signal a lane change, that they can operate a vehicle safely on the roads and can obtain insurance. Should the state interest of New York State supersede that of the federal interest of getting people out of the country who are here illegally?

MARK KRIKORIAN: There's clearly responsibilities that Washington needs to and is appropriate to leave to the states; there's no question about it. But there are matters where Washington has to use its power and try to get the states to do what is in the national interest rather than in specific political interests of that state.

There are a lot of things the federal government has done that probably shouldn't, like try to get the states to raise drinking ages or lower drinking ages or change speed limits. Federal government has not been shy about using its power, for instance, over highway funding, that sort of thing, to get states to kind of get in line on matters like that, that, frankly, personally, I think are none of Washington's business.

This is Washington's business. It is not something that is parochial to New York, because once you have a New York driver's license, you then have an official government ID to drive to North Dakota and Arizona, as well. So, no, the states can't say, "This is simply our business, and Washington can't tell us what to do."

Insuring drivers

Mark Krikorian
Center for Immigration Studies
This is a political decision on the part of the administration to bail out Governor Spitzer. In other words, the way it's presented is that Homeland Security got concessions from New York that would improve security. That's not what happened.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the alternative having people operating a vehicle inside the state who don't have a license from anywhere?

CLARK KENT ERVIN: Absolutely, and that, as a practical matter, is often what we have in the state of New York and in states all around the country. So there really are two public policy purposes that are served by this policy change.

One is encouraging people to get driver's insurance in case they injure themselves or others. And the second, as I say, is getting more information about them for counterterrorism purposes.

Furthermore, the federal government has spoken about this plan. I think it's telling that Secretary Chertoff appeared with Governor Spitzer with regard to this program. And while he expressed as a policy matter a preference that New York not issue driver's licenses to illegal aliens, the net effect of this three-tiered system that the governor has implemented, according to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, is to enhance New York's security.

And I'm quite confident that Secretary Chertoff would not have made that conclusion, would have not done so publicly if he thought there was a net security detriment.

RAY SUAREZ: A response on the security issue specifically?

MARK KRIKORIAN: This is a political decision on the part of the administration to bail out Governor Spitzer. In other words, the way it's presented is that Homeland Security got concessions from New York that would improve security. That's not what happened.

What happened is the administration agrees with Governor Spitzer's goal of helping illegal immigrants burrow into society, and they have essentially bailed him out by providing him the kind of political cover for what both he and the administration want to do, which is give illegal aliens driver's licenses as a kind of consolation prize for having lost the big amnesty fight over the summer in the Senate.

RAY SUAREZ: To be continued, gentlemen. Mark Krikorian, Clark Kent Ervin, thank you both.

MARK KRIKORIAN: Thank you.

CLARK KENT ERVIN: Thank you, Ray.