Gov. Spitzer’s grenade in the form of his proposal to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants landed square in the middle of the Presidential Campaign recently, resulting in mixed responses and informative insight on how the candidates view immigration as an issue of national security.
The issue is very clear. The bipartisan 9/11 Commission highlighted the ease with which the 9/11 hijackers were able to obtain numerous driver’s licenses that helped them successfully attack our country. The 9/11 Commission recommended improving the process for issuing state identification documents to individuals, to include determining whether an applicant had legal immigration status in the United States. The REAL ID Act was Congress’ response and required enhanced identity verification processes and checks on immigration status before a driver’s license or state identification card is issued. This all seems to make sense. Driver’s licenses are heavily relied upon in our society as proof of identity and is the key “breeder” document from which individuals obtain other documents and are able to navigate freely in our society. Not enhancing issuance procedure will only continue the loophole that may be exploited by criminals and terrorists who are seeking to assimilate in our society as they plan their unlawful activities. So what did the candidates think on this issue of national security and integrity in our immigration system?
The clear loser in this exercise was Sen. Hillary Clinton who proceeded to perform her version of Howard and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine on a national debate and ultimately accuse the moderator of playing a game of “gotcha” in of all forums, a presidential debate. It was only after her yes-no-yes response became a hot point that her campaign subsequently issued a carefully worded statement that “supported” Gov. Spitzer’s goal but did not endorse it. In fairness to the stumped candidate, it probably would have been equally entertaining to see the other Democratic candidates perform their own improv routines to this straight forward question.
Compare Sen. Clinton’s response to Mayor Giuliani’s response. Not only did he immediately and decisively reject Spitzer’s puzzling proposal, but he also took action to eliminate this potential loophole by calling Rep. King and Rep. Sessions and getting their commitment to submit legislation to prohibit states like New York from issuing driver’s licenses to illegal aliens. None of the other candidates, including several current Senators who can introduce legislation, have offered a similar solution.
Perhaps a hypothetical would be beneficial in shedding light on this issue. Let’s suppose a terrorist in the U.S. was plotting to blow up a military base. Despite being here illegally, he obtains a New York driver’s license which he uses to rent a car. He pays for the car rental in cash he withdrew that morning from a U.S. bank account he was able to open by presenting his New York driver’s license and which was funded by overseas wires from his terrorist organization. He loads concealed explosives into the trunk of the car and starts his drive from New York to Virginia a few days before the planned attack to rendezvous with other accomplices. Nervous, he fails to realize he is speeding before a Virginia State Trooper pulls him over. Stopped on the side of the road, the terrorist presents his New York driver’s license to the State Trooper. The driver’s license is confirmed by the Trooper as being valid and properly issued by New York. With no other suspicion, the Trooper issues him a ticket and properly allows him to proceed on his way. The terrorist departs, meets his accomplices, and two days later succeeds in his attack.
If the terrorist was illegal and unable to obtain a driver’s license, he may have had to resort to driving without a driver’s license or with a fraudulent one that could be detected at a stop. Either scenario raises the risk of being exposed. Either scenario would likely have resulted with the terrorist in our hypothetical being arrested by the State Trooper for the driving infraction. This would have resulted in his car being impounded, searched and the terrorist plot being disrupted. In addition, his illegal status may have been detected following his arrest and would have served as another basis for him being detained and unable to complete his plot. Based on this hypothetical, could a Presidential candidate logically “support” a plan to issue these documents to illegal immigrants?
Perhaps this is another game of “gotcha” based on a far-fetched and implausible hypothetical? Unfortunately, that is not the case. Just after midnight on September 9, 2001, Ziad Jarrah received a speeding ticket in Maryland as he headed north on I-95 towards Newark to rendezvous with three other hijackers. Ziad Jarrah, who had violated his immigration status at the time of the stop, presented a valid Virginia driver’s license, was issued a $270 speeding ticket, and allowed to leave in the absence of any other violation. Two days later, Ziad Jarrah piloted hijacked United Flight 93 into a field in Pennsylvania, killing many heroic civilians. This was not the only traffic incident involving 9/11 hijackers that may have led to a different outcome if they were not in possession of driver’s licenses. Two other 9/11 pilots and a muscle hijacker – ringleader Mohammed Atta, Hani Hanjour, and Nawaf Al Hazmi – were stopped by local police for driving violations prior to 9/11. All three were in violation of their immigration status, one blatantly having overstayed his visa. All three presented a valid driver’s license when stopped, were issued tickets, and released to continue their plotting for the attack. In total, three of the four 9/11 hijacker pilots had traffic stop incidents before 9/11.
Virginia learned its lesson and immediately changed it driver’s license procedures after 9/11, to include enhanced screening of the immigration status of all applicants. The 9/11 Commission recognized this national security vulnerability and highlighted this issue in its report. The real question to be answered is why – in given our recent history – are some Presidential candidates, including a Senator from the state that was attacked on 9/11, still unable to understand the security vulnerabilities created by any proposal to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants?