Friday, October 19, 2007

Licensed Lunacy

There's a public policy argument to be made in favor of granting drivers licenses illegal immigrants. Now it's not one that we'd make, or one that we think has much merit in this age of terrorism. But one of the biggest problems we have with something like this, is the fact that when Eliot Spitzer ran for office he made no mention of this boldly divergent public policy, one that departs dramatically from the current standard practices.

So it's interesting to read the governor's explanations for his initiative in today's NY Sun. As the Sun tells us: "Governor Spitzer said he has no intention of retreating from his contentious effort to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, insisting that the new policy would be more widely embraced if New Yorkers had a better understanding of its benefits."

If that's in fact the case, then the governor should have used the election campaign to educate the voters about the need to do something as radically new as this, since he believes that the polls aren't a good gauge of popular sentiment: "I'm not sure that the number accurately reflects the true public sentiment if it were presented in questions that reflected the underlying facts," Mr. Spitzer told the Sun." (An update is in order here. Juan Gonzales informs us that Spitzer did tell "immigrant leaders" about his intentions; it would have been nice, however, if he had told the 72% of New Yorkers who think that this is a bad idea).

And when he tells the Sun that he doesn't care about the polls that show that almost 75% of New Yorkers oppose the policy, ("I stand and govern based upon principle, not poll numbers. Humility has nothing to do with caving to poll numbers," he said. "Principle is what I've stood for, for nine years, and that's why I was elected by the largest margin by any governor in history.") he pointedly omits the political rationale that many folks see behind the governors move-a campaign promise to a number of powerful labor unions (and those "immigrant leaders").

Making all of this even more fascinating is the possibility, also examined in today's Sun, that most illegal immigrants would be reluctant to take advantage of the governor's generous offer. As the paper points out: "Far from the political debate on Governor Spitzer's plan to give undocumented immigrants valid driver's licenses, discussions are under way in New York City's immigrant-heavy neighborhoods about whether undocumented New Yorkers would even be willing to share their identities with the government."

Talk about money for nothing! As one illegal immigrant said: "Policies can be good today, but turn bad tomorrow." People are scared that, once they've been documented, their continued presence in the country will be at risk. Which raises the question of how much due diligence was done by the governor to determine whether his intended beneficiaries would not only appreciate his efforts, but actually utilize the license option. As one local Chinese-American official told the Sun about immigrant reactions to the new policy: "They say they are very happy with this new program, but they are not coming here today because they are very scared."

What's really at stake here is the country's immigration and homeland security policies. The governor's not waiting on the federal government, and by moving forward in this way he may be complicating the efforts to craft an immigration reform policy that is both fair and provides security to American citizens. In the process, he may also be damaging his own political stature.