Illegal immigrant licenses drive debate

Times Staff Writers

The leading presidential contenders, Republicans and Democrats alike, routinely declare their opposition to illegal immigration. But a divide has emerged over a narrower question: Should undocumented immigrants already in the United States be issued driver’s licenses?

During Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, five of the seven candidates indicated they would support states issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. The front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, appeared to endorse the idea as well before retreating into an answer with so many caveats that her rivals mocked her for seeming to take both sides.

As soon as the debate ended, the Republican National Committee also pounced -- issuing a statement criticizing Clinton.

On Wednesday, campaign spokesman Phil Singer would not directly answer whether Clinton supported licensing illegal immigrants. “The question misses the point of the issue,” he said, emphasizing that the New York senator wanted comprehensive immigration reform that puts people who are now in the country illegally on a path to citizenship.


The issue has been a source of controversy in several states, from California (where Gov. Gray Davis, who supported licensing, was recalled in 2003) to New York (where Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s call to grant licenses has drawn fire in recent days). It is expected to stay alive during the 2008 campaign as states move to meet a set of deadlines, the first in May, for complying with the Real ID Act of 2005.

That law set nationwide standards designed to make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to secure driver’s licenses. In its final report, the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks recommended federal license standards as a way to prevent would-be terrorists in the U.S. from getting around lax state laws and obtaining a recognized form of identification.

Only three states have enacted measures to comply with Real ID. Fourteen others -- citing the cost of compliance, along with a dislike of federal intrusion -- have passed measures saying they will not comply with the law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California legislators have debated the issue, but have yet to act.

Although the broader question of how the United States deals with illegal immigration was at the forefront of the 2006 midterm election, in which the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress, it has yet to emerge as a dominant issue between the parties in the 2008 presidential race. Republicans generally favor a tough enforcement approach to illegal immigration, but there are differences among the candidates of both parties over how to handle the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and whether American cities should offer sanctuary to illegal immigrants.

The question of driver’s licenses came up near the end of the two-hour debate Tuesday, when moderator Tim Russert asked Clinton whether she supported Spitzer’s proposal.

The Democratic governor has said he sees the licenses as a way to improve road safety and bring people in the U.S. illegally “out of the shadows.” After his proposal was widely criticized, Spitzer reached an agreement with the federal government last weekend that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain a different type of license -- one they could not use as identification to board airplanes or cross national borders.

In mid-October, Clinton told the editorial board of a New Hampshire newspaper: “I know exactly what Gov. Spitzer’s trying to do, and it makes a lot of sense.” On Tuesday, Russert asked: “Why does it make a lot of sense to give an illegal immigrant a driver’s license?”

Clinton did not answer directly.

“We know in New York we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally,” she said. “They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It’s probability. So what Gov. Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum. There needs to be federal action on immigration reform.”

Russert followed up by asking whether any candidate opposed the driver’s licenses. Only Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut put his hand up.

“Look, I’m as forthright and progressive on immigration policy as anyone here,” Dodd said, “but we’re dealing with a serious problem here; we need to have people come forward. The idea that we’re going to extend this privilege here of a driver’s license, I think, is troublesome.”

Clinton jumped back in: “I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Gov. Spitzer is trying to do it.”

That drew an immediate reaction from Dodd: “Wait a minute,” he said. “No, no, no. You said yes, you thought it made sense to do it.”

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama also jumped in.

“Unless I missed something, Sen. Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes just a few minutes ago, and I think this is a real issue for the country,” Edwards said.

Obama added: “I was confused on Sen. Clinton’s answer. I can’t tell whether she was for it or against it, and I do think that is important.”

Fifteen minutes after the debate, the Republican National Committee issued a statement: “Immigration is yet another issue where Hillary Clinton does not have a clear stance. When asked whether illegal immigrants should not receive a driver’s license, Hillary did not raise her hand. Then when presented with a question concerning Spitzer’s plan, she would not take a stand.”

The campaigns of Republicans Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani followed with statements Wednesday. A Romney spokesman described Clinton as “dismissive of efforts to enforce our nation’s immigration laws and entirely unwilling to offer a straight answer to a very direct question.” A Giuliani spokeswoman concurred, saying that “the American people can’t afford half-baked ideas that undermine their safety and security.”

The significance of the issue for the presidential campaign is unclear. Republicans focused Wednesday more on what they said was Clinton’s prevaricating than on the licenses themselves. “For Republicans, running against Hillary Clinton has a lot more political potential than engaging in a complicated debate about driver’s licenses,” said Dan Schnur, a GOP consultant.

Schnur said the topic could emerge in the general election campaign, but added: “My guess is that Clinton is too savvy a candidate to let it become a major issue.”

Some political consultants, mostly Democrats, have warned that Republicans risk alienating a rapidly growing bloc of voters -- Latinos -- by pushing too hard on immigration-related issues.

Joe Garcia, an executive vice president of the Democratic think tank NDN, said that for Republicans, the licensing debate “is great because it changes the subject” from issues on which Democrats hold advantages. But this particular issue, he said, truly matters only to a small base of supporters.

“Show me a race we’ve lost over this issue,” he said. “You can’t.”