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Giving up the case for licenses

December 14, 2007 | Page 6

INCREASINGLY DEPRIVED of basic rights, our immigrant community here in New York is extremely demoralized and angry in the wake of Gov. Elliot Spitzer's decision to drop a proposal that would have given them licenses to drive.

But what brought Spitzer to cave in so quickly? "This plan was wrong from the start, and it's right that he's putting it behind him," said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford). "He's seen the impact on Hillary Clinton's campaign, and Democrats from around the state just wanted to free themselves from this issue."

The right promoted the idea that giving licenses to immigrants would mean aiding "terrorists." Logically, this would be opposed by the public. Therefore, Democrats should stay as far away from the issue of immigrant rights as possible.

However, the media's overall negative analysis of the policy change and why it failed wasn't framed solely by the right. Anthony Weiner, a progressive Democrat, described it as "an issue that's vexed Washington for a while. Now it's spread its plague to Albany, and I think the governor learned the lesson that immigration has become the new third rail of politics."

Despite their commitment to campaigning for immigrant rights, even the New York Immigration Coalition directed their advocacy of the policy to a right-wing audience, stating in a press release, "The old policy undermined public safety and hindered law enforcement by creating a huge population without records or identification and denied them the ability to drive. The new policy fixes the problem by imposing tough but fair documentation standards for all applicants...The new policy proves that it's indeed possible to expand access while improving security."

Spitzer pitched his proposal in terms of national security, however progressive he may have talked when specifically addressing immigrants. His own press release announcing the new policy stated its main justifications as being "safer streets, lower insurance rates and safer homeland"; and, specifically, helping "bolster homeland security by bringing more individuals into the system and, when necessary, assisting law enforcement efforts to locate those who present a real security threat."

This rhetoric shaped the debate and was easy prey for Republicans to attack a plan that would make "it easier for would-be terrorists to get identification and make the country less safe," as one Republican claimed to USA Today.

In fact, this follows in line with the way former Gov. George Pataki got away with taking away the right to licenses in the first place in 2004--under the pretext of not giving terrorists access to New York roads. The real impact of this change was that many people were deprived of the basic means of getting to work, getting to the hospital and taking their children to school.

Rather than going on the offensive and arguing that people who live and work here have the right to drive, Spitzer tried to justify his reform as being even more anti-terrorist than Pataki's plan. His argument was that now that we have a "problem" (immigrants), state governments are left to figure out a way to deal with the "burden." He went so far as to say, "The federal government has lost control of its borders. It has allowed millions of undocumented immigrants to enter our country and now has no solution to deal with it."

It may seem that Spitzer and immigrants' rights groups put their arguments in terms of security in order to convince a suspicious and racist public. The opposite is the case, however. Their framing of the debate in terms of security was reflected in the way the media reported the issue. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that public opinion shifted to the right, with 70 percent of New Yorkers ending up opposing the plan.

After all, New Yorkers were given a choice not between the expansion of immigrant rights and further attacks on undocumented workers, but between two ways of defending "the homeland" against terrorists.

The answer to why politicians and most immigrant rights organizations have tended to present more conservative positions on immigration, including the licenses issue, may very well lie in the fact that, as El Diario put it, immigration "has become one of the most dangerous topics for presidential candidates" to touch.

The fact is that the strategy followed by most of the groups involved in the driver's license campaign has been to rely on politicians--and particularly Democrats--to stop the attacks on immigrants and grant more legal rights, rather than expecting to have to build a movement strong enough to pressure both Democrats and Republicans from below, regardless of those politicians' promises. The license debacle shows that such a strategy can have disastrous consequences.

Before the 2006 election, Spitzer promised pro-immigrant groups that he would change New York's license policy if they endorsed him. Groups such as the New York Civic Participation Project (NYCPP) devoted time and resources to Spitzer's campaign while expecting him to lead the campaign for licenses from within the governor's mansion. Before the election, it gave Spitzer 100 days to put the license reform into effect, and vowed to protest if he didn't.

Once elected, Spitzer announced a plan for a two-tiered ID system in place of the equal access that he had originally promised. At first, the same groups that had campaigned for him announced that they would continue to demonstrate until he granted a single license for all.

However, groups that expect politicians like Spitzer to lead the way in granting reforms must tailor their demands to make them acceptable to a party whose main support comes from the very businesses that exploit immigrant labor. This party's strategy involves not taking "divisive" stands that might alienate its backers.

The stakes are even higher with the 2008 presidential election in sight, particularly given that Spitzer is the governor of Hillary Clinton's home state. It may be for this reason that, instead of continuing to push for driver's licenses despite Spitzer's retreat and pressuring him more than ever to stand up to the right, many immigrant rights groups followed the Democrats' lead and themselves gave up the fight. Most of these groups let Spitzer off the hook, solely blaming what La Fuente called "an unexpected and often irrational opposition" from anti-immigrant forces.

A campaign that could have given confidence to the movement and drawn more people into it was left to die in the hands of the governor. Rather than continuing to organize their base independently of Spitzer, the organizers of the campaign for licenses depended on politicians. In doing so, they have ended up making it easier not for liberals, but for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the right wing, to determine the direction of immigration policy.

Meanwhile, very few forces on the ground right now are trying to build a grassroots base capable of turning the tide. The attitude of Rev. Allan Ramirez, a pro-immigrant activist, is sadly a reflection of the state of the immigrants' movement. He told Newsday that he thought that "Spitzer did the right thing in abandoning the plan that had come to fuel anti-immigrant rhetoric. 'It was becoming fodder for political bigots who were using it to divide the immigrant community,' he said. 'I, for one, within the immigrant community say we will not allow these bigots to use the immigrant community as a political piñata, and that's what this had become.'"

In other words, we should not provoke the right or stand up to it, but rather allow open bigotry to continue. The reality is, however, that it is only by continuing to fight that the movement will grow and eventually win victories.

For starters, we need to stop depending on one or a few politicians on top. Amy Sugimori of La Fuente was right to argue, in her assessment of Spitzer's retreat, that "we need serious leadership" capable of pushing immigrants' issues.

However, this leadership will not come from someone like Spitzer, but rather from rank-and-file immigrants and supporters whose interests lie in building a movement that, however "divisive" the issue, fights steadfastly for real immigrant rights.
Diana de Lalsakuy, from the Internet

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