Politics & Policy

Spitzer in the Face of Law

At Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton finally gave her primary opponents something to work with. Asked about New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s plan to give drivers licenses to illegal immigrants, Clinton articulated a — how shall we put it? — nuanced position on the issue.

She said, “What Governor Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum” left by the federal government’s failure to pass an amnesty for illegal immigrants — aka “comprehensive” immigration reform — last June. When, later in the debate, Chris Dodd expressed his opposition to Spitzer’s plan, Clinton jumped back in with “I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it.” Clinton pointed out that the plan calls for “three different licenses — one that provides identification for actually going onto airplanes and other kinds of security issues, another which is an ordinary driver’s license, and then a special card that identifies the people who would be on the road.” Dodd replied, “That’s a bureaucratic nightmare.” Debate moderator Tim Russert tried to get Clinton to stop equivocating, at which point she accused him of playing “gotcha.”

In the end, all this got a little too convoluted even for Clinton: Thursday, she announced that she fully supports Spitzer’s plan.

We find ourselves in agreement with Senator Dodd (gulp). Spitzer, a Democrat, is an imperious man who does his best to rule by fiat. Last September, he issued an executive order declaring illegal immigrants eligible for drivers licenses — a move that prompted immediate and intense opposition from a majority of New York’s county clerks, and from prominent state politicians in both parties. The public wasn’t crazy about Spitzer’s idea either: One poll found 72 percent of New York State voters against the proposal.

Despite this backlash, Spitzer stuck to his guns — until Homeland Security Secretary chief Michael Chertoff threatened to come out against the plan unless it was modified. This led Spitzer to propose the three-tiered system Clinton mentioned in Tuesday’s debate. But the new plan is already proving to be just as unpopular as the old one. And for good reason: It’s a terrible idea.

Critics of the old plan zeroed in on security concerns: If illegal immigrants could get drivers licenses, they reasoned, then terrorists who are here illegally could obtain all the documentation they would need to board airplanes. The three-tiered system purports to meet that concern by creating a class of licenses that read “Not for identification purposes.” This would be the sole type of license available to illegal immigrants.

Only two states — Tennessee and Utah — have tried this type of tiered licensing program, and only Utah still uses one. Tennessee’s Democratic governor pulled the plug on his state’s program after federal regulators discovered widespread fraud and abuse. Utah claims its program has achieved limited success, but its population is only about a seventh of New York’s. The bureaucratic challenges of implementing such a system in the Empire State would be nothing less than nightmarish, as Dodd pointed out in the debate.

But Spitzer’s scheme would be a bad idea even if it could be implemented efficiently. There is simply no getting around the fact that it rewards illegal conduct. The message it sends is that illegals can break U.S. immigration law with impunity and still expect such privileges as drivers licenses. That message is objectionable not merely because of its symbolism: Incentives have consequences. This is why the country’s last large-scale experiment in “bringing illegals out of the shadows” — the 1986 amnesty — massively increased the country’s illegal population.

When the “comprehensive” Senate bill went up in flames earlier this year, we learned how a majority of the public felt about rewarding illegal immigration before the government made good-faith efforts to enforce the borders. Spitzer’s plan — though modest by comparison — is of a piece with amnesty proposals old and new. And now Hillary is foursquare behind it. Republicans could help themselves — and the country — by educating voters about this open-borders advocacy from the woman who would be president.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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