Spitzer’s Wrong Turn

In announcing that illegal immigrants will be able to file for driver’s licenses in New York State, Governor Elliot Spitzer asserted that the “D.M.V. is not the I.N.S.” In other words, the folks who issue driver’s licenses are not responsible for policing the nation’s borders or determining an applicant’s legal status.

Technically, of course, he is correct. But broadly speaking, he could not be more wrong.

The Empire State is home to more than a half-million illegal immigrants, many of whom work hard and contribute to the diversity and culture that make New York special. Nevertheless, the operative word here is “illegal”—they are here in violation of the nation’s immigration laws and procedures. By allowing them to get driver’s licenses, Governor Spitzer is, in essence, making it easier for illegal immigrants to continue to flout the nation’s laws.

Throughout the country, other states are doing precisely the opposite: They are making it harder for illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses, by insisting that noncitizen applicants prove that they are here legally. In many cases, this push for documentation is driven not so much by immigration issues but as part of an effort to combat identity theft. Only eight states do not require proof of legal residence; New York would be the ninth.

At a time when the nation is trying to sort out its immigration problem and gain firmer control of its borders, Governor Spitzer’s move will make things worse, not better. The governor said he hopes to bring more illegal immigrants out of the shadows. But why should that be the state’s concern? If immigrants wish to emerge from the shadows, they ought to file for citizenship, and hope for the best. If they choose to live here illegally, they are condemning themselves to the furtive existence from which Governor Spitzer proposes to rescue them.

The D.M.V. may not be the I.N.S., and it is certainly not an arm of the Department of Homeland Security. But shouldn’t we be concerned about giving state-issued licenses to those noncitizens who may be intent on causing us harm? Should we make it easier for would-be terrorists to identify themselves if they are pulled over on a highway?

Lots of us have our Ellis Island stories of immigrant pluck. We all recognize the contributions that immigrants have made to this city and the nation. But it’s not the 1890’s anymore. It’s not even the 1990’s. The world has become more dangerous, and those dangers are no more than a day’s flight away. It’s incumbent on us to make life uncomfortable for those who would do us harm. We need to make it more difficult, not easier, to gain access to one of the key identification cards that our government issues. Our entire society is requiring photo ID’s, and a driver’s license is the gold standard for getting into any building, cashing a check, applying for other licenses.

Moreover, New Yorkers may be forced to carry more “official” forms of ID when they travel domestically, since Mr. Spitzer’s actions may very well lower the nationwide value of a New York driver’s license.

For the overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants who have come here in search of work, they must realize that ultimately they are here in violation of the law. For if we decide immigration law doesn’t matter anymore, at least not in New York, what other laws will we decide to ignore? And what will be the consequences?