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Behind the debate over licenses for immigrants

By Lee Sustar | November 9, 2007 | Page 1

IN ALL the hoo-hah about Hillary Clinton's debate flip-flop on driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, something got lost--that is, the issue of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.

During the October 30 Democratic presidential contenders' debate, Clinton gave ambivalent answers about the issue. She supported the idea of offering driver's licenses for immigrants without papers, but refused to specifically endorse the plan under discussion--a proposal by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer to grant three different types of licenses the undocumented.

The following day, Clinton issued a statement backing Spitzer's plan. But the mainstream media all but ignored how a high-stakes debate on driver's licenses for the undocumented is playing out in states across the U.S.--and how the federal "Real ID" law passed in 2005 both discriminates against immigrants and serves as a back-door way to a national identity card.

In New York, Spitzer, a Democrat, originally proposed issuing standard driver's licenses to all state residents who can pass the written and road tests. Then, under pressure from the right, he conferred with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff and announced an alternative--a three-tiered system of driver's licenses.

"One license would be designed to meet still evolving federal Real ID requirements for boarding domestic flights and entering federal buildings," a New York Newsday editorial explained. "The second could be used to cross into Canada without a passport. The third license, good only for driving, is the one that would be issued to undocumented immigrants who present a valid foreign passport and other, verifiable identification. Citizens and legal residents could also opt for this more restricted license."

By running to Chertoff and Homeland Security for political cover, Spitzer has given new momentum to the Real ID law, which is being rejected by several state legislatures because of its great expense, complicated paperwork and encroachments on civil liberties.

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UNDER REAL ID, states have until 2008 to upgrade efforts to verify the identity and immigration status of those who apply for a driver's license that can be used as a form of identification for "federal purposes," including interaction with federal agencies like the Social Security Administration, flying in an airplane and more. The law also allows "driver's certificates"--licenses that have more limited use as identification or ones that can be used for driving, but not as valid ID.

If Spitzer's plan goes through, the driver's certificates will inevitably be seen by undocumented immigrants as a means to register them in a government database, which will discourage them from applying. Plus, simply holding the certificates will be seen by authorities as evidence of the carrier's undocumented status.

That's what happened in Tennessee, where, prior to the passage of the Real ID law, the state issued driver's certificates for undocumented immigrants beginning in 2004. "[P]roblems, such as discrimination against certificate holders, are simply unavoidable given the nature of the document," the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition reported in 2005.

Those who do qualify for Real ID driver's licenses will have the dubious honor of receiving a de facto national ID card.

"Real ID poses serious privacy threats," the ACLU stated in a press release earlier this year. "The federally mandated IDs would hold machine-readable data of every American. That information would be stored in a national database available to government employees at all levels, putting every American at risk of identity theft and security breaches.

"Ultimately, Real ID could pave the way for a society that tracks Americans' movements and warehouses personal information in centralized databases that are rife with errors and highly enticing to identity thieves. Because Real ID promises to be such an integral part of our lives, from boarding a plane to opening a bank account to verifying your eligibility to work, a small glitch could have disastrous consequences."

Bad as the Real ID law is, DHS has proposed rules for its implementation that are even worse for non-citizens, according to the National Immigration Law Center (NILC)--including an "irrational and incomplete" set of documents required to prove lawful immigration status.

"DHS does not even acknowledge that several groups of lawfully present immigrants are excluded from eligible categories," a NILC report pointed out.

With Real ID under fire--Congress earlier this year rejected a $300 million appropriations bill to fund its implementation--Spitzer's sudden embrace of the program is a big boost to Chertoff, the DHS and the Bush administration.

It's telling that Chertoff, who's presiding over the largest wave of immigration raids and deportations in decades, is willing to tolerate the issuance of driver's certificates to the undocumented in New York. In return, he would get to entrench Real ID and its Big Brother apparatus in a large, immigration-heavy state.

Hillary Clinton's waffling on this issue isn't the result of a personal failing, but the Democrats' contradictions about how to maximize their turnout of immigrant voters while avoiding right-wing opposition over the issue.

For example, John Edwards, who supported giving driver's licenses to immigrants in the 2004 elections, now says it shouldn't be done in advance of "comprehensive immigration reform"--translation: the creation of a guest-worker program.

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