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More Special Reports
|Posted October 9, 2007|
|Spencer Platt/Getty Images|
|Gov. Eliot Spitzer in the Columbus Day Parade on Monday.|
By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE
and DANNY HAKIM
ALBANY, Oct. 8 Opponents have decried Gov. Eliot Spitzers move to grant drivers licenses to illegal immigrants as a passport to terror and a frightening policy shift that is dangerous and inconceivable.
They suggest that the policy will shield illegal immigrants from scrutiny by law enforcement and airport security personnel and make them appear to be in the United States legally.
But the governors policy is drawing support from some terrorism and security experts, who, like Mr. Spitzer, regard it as a way of bringing a hidden population into the open and ultimately making the system more secure, not to mention getting more drivers on the road licensed and insured.
The success of the policy, they say, will rest on the reliability of new technology that Mr. Spitzer wants installed in Department of Motor Vehicles offices to verify the authenticity of passports and other documents that the illegal immigrants will be required to submit when applying for licenses.
Some of the new security problems predicted by critics appear unlikely, several security experts said. Having a drivers license should not make it easier to board a domestic airplane flight, because foreign passports are already accepted as identification at airports. Moreover, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration said, neither a foreign passport nor an American drivers license is among the criteria used to determine whether the bearer will be subject to extra security screening.
Further, while critics have made much of the fact that several of the Sept. 11 terrorists used drivers licenses to rent vehicles and board airplanes, they were able to obtain licenses as apparently legal immigrants, if in some cases by presenting fraudulent documentation. As a result, the federal commission that investigated the attacks specifically declined to make recommendations on whether licenses should be granted to illegal immigrants, saying it was not germane to their inquiry.
If you talk to people in the intelligence and law enforcement communities, when theyre investigating terrorists or crimes or unlawful activity, they want people to be in the system, because thats how you find them, said Margaret D. Stock, an associate professor at West Point who also works for the Army as an immigration lawyer.
Im a Republican, she added. I find it disturbing that people who claim to be law and order types want to let hundreds of thousands of people run around the country without any oversight when theres a war going on.
But critics of the policy see it as a retreat.
There will no longer be any security, said Frank J. Merola, a Republican and the county clerk in Rensselaer County. A license, he said, will no longer be different than a fraudulent document on the street.
When a police officer walks up to a routine traffic stop, he said, he doesnt know if someone is here legally or illegally.
Mr. Merola added that his concerns would have been allayed if the governor had proposed creating a second class of drivers license for the illegal immigrants. Chuck Canterbury, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said his group has generally opposed giving licenses to people who cannot prove they are here legally. However, he said he would not necessarily object to a system like the one Mr. Spitzer is proposing, as long as the verification technology was adequate to prevent fraud.
We just need to know who were stopping, and have some degree of confidence that the information is accurate, Mr. Canterbury said. As long as they have proof of who they are, I dont think that we would object to something like that.
Under the new policy, someone applying for a license without a Social Security number would need a valid, current foreign passport, in addition to other documents that would aid in establishing the applicants identity.
The passports authenticity would be verified through new scanners installed at all Department of Motor Vehicles offices or at a central location by a new unit of specially trained personnel. In addition, under the policy, photo-comparison software will be tested in hopes of keeping people from getting multiple licenses under different names.
If the photo-comparison technology works and if the D.M.V. uses effective methods for authenticating and verifying foreign-source identity documents, the future New York license will be more robust than todays drivers licenses, and of much greater use in screening and investigations involving terrorism, said Susan Ginsburg, a former staff member of the 9/11 Commission who is now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and an adviser to the federal Department of Homeland Security.
The most important thing for investigators and intelligence officials, she added, was to be able to track suspects, legal or not.
Consistency of identity is critical to law enforcement and counterterrorism, and its the consistency of identity that the New York system is designed to increase, she said.
But James M. Staudenraus, an adviser to the groups 9/11 Families for a Secure America and the Coalition for a Secure Drivers License, argued that forgoing a requirement for Social Security numbers meant forgoing the only reliable method for verifying someones true identity. Foreign passports varied so widely in quality and antifraud protection, he said, that it was dangerous to rely on them.
We cant rely on technology for verifying peoples true identity, Mr. Staudenraus said.
He worries that once would-be terrorists had access to valid state drivers licenses, they would raise less suspicion. Everyone who sees it assumes that the individual carrying it has gone under some sort of a background check, he said.
The Spitzer policy means that New York drivers licenses are unlikely to meet the federal guidelines being phased in by 2013 for a federally recognized license known as a Real ID, which will require, among other things, proof of legal residency. Under the federal law, at that time, the Real ID or a passport would be needed to board an airplane in the United States. In that case, New York and other states may opt to offer both Real IDs for those who want them, as well as standard drivers licenses.
The dispute over the Spitzer policy appears headed for the courts.
In most upstate counties, county clerks operate centers for the Department of Motor Vehicles, and a dozen Republican clerks have threatened to defy the policy, even though they act as agents of the governors administration. Republican lawmakers have threatened to sue to block the policy, saying the governor did not have the statutory authority to act on his own; the Spitzer administration argues that previous litigation on the matter supports their position.
Mr. Spitzer, a Democrat, has called the response hysterical.
We are not talking about letting more people into this country, he said, we are talking about being practical about those who are already here.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, New York Region, of Tuesday, October 9, 2007.
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