On September 21st, New York Governor Spitzer unexpectedly announced that New York would issue driver’s licenses to illegal aliens – signaling the latest challenge to the REAL ID law. Gov. Spitzer anticipated that his unilateral decision would exacerbate tensions between his office and Republicans in the State Assembly but appeared confident in his decision.
Unbeknownst to Gov. Spitzer at that time, his brazen proclamation would wither under the intense and ruthless national immigration debate. Gov. Spitzer immediately found himself under siege not only within the State of New York, but also from a large and vocal national constituency. The fact that it was the Governor of New York, the state where 9/11 hijackers easily obtained U.S. identification documents that helped them effectuate their attacks on New York City, added even more fury to the criticism. While many politicians believe the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, that was not the case for Gov. Spitzer who immediately became the daily fodder of prominent national news shows including CNN’s Lou Dobbs and FOX’s O’Reilly Show and also became the target of the vocal national anti-illegal immigrant constituency. Indeed, the Governor of historically pro-immigrant New York could not hide behind state borders for flouting the REAL ID.
The final straw came when the Department of Homeland Security flung some warning shots across the U.S.S. Spitzer’s bow, bringing the ensuing public criticism of his plan into focus and sharp reality. The result: in just over a month, a humbled Gov. Spitzer stood alongside DHS Secretary Chertoff to announce a “new” 3-tiered driver’s license system in New York that would comply with REAL ID requirements while at the same time permitting Spitzer to save face by permitting the issuance of a “third-tier” driver’s license to illegal immigrants. The caveat, the third-tier licenses would clearly state on its face: “Not Valid for Federal Identification” – a phrase that could soon become the modern day equivalent of the scarlet letter for illegal immigrants.
Despite the political theater, this announcement averted what could have been a significant defeat to the REAL ID and DHS’ efforts to make life difficult for the millions of illegal aliens in the United States. Since the passage of the REAL ID, many states have criticized it and opposed on numerous grounds, including characterizing it as an unfunded mandate and the creation of a national ID. The potential of New York joining the list of states rejecting REAL ID requirements would have added a significant vote against REAL ID’s future survival. It also would have been a significant rebuke to the national security concerns that form the underpinning of REAL ID. Instead, the political and public heat coupled with DHS diplomacy averted REAL ID disaster and created what may turn out to be the blueprint for other states to acquiesce to the REAL ID. Clearly, any Governor or State thinking of doing what Gov. Spitzer boldly announced as his initial plan will have to think twice.
To be clear, however, the outcome was not completely ideal for DHS either. At the press conference, Secretary Chertoff made it clear that he and DHS did not endorse the issuance of licenses to people not legally in the U.S., but also acknowledged the limitation on DHS’ authority to prohibit states from doing this. Gov. Spitzer can still enjoy a pyrrhic victory of being able to issue scarlet letter driver’s licenses to the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in New York. Whether this victory translates to illegal immigrants getting in line to purchase what could essentially be a “smoking gun” for deportation remains to be seen. Regardless, the New York showdown and resulting compromise could pave the way for one of the 9/11 Commission’s key recommendations actually becoming “real.”