Spitzer waffles on driver licenses for illegal immigrants

The New York Times in an editorial today says that New York Governor Sptizer, who announced plans to issue drivers licenses to qualified illegal immigrants, has retreated, apparently in response to pressure from the Department of Homeland Security. The new plan is very complicated, providing some ID for illegal immigrants but in an attention grabbing way, as the editorial describes:
Governor Spitzer Retreats
Gov. Eliot Spitzer has confronted the most intense public criticism of his political career — and caved. Not so long ago, Mr. Spitzer was doing the right and brave thing, planning to offer driver’s licenses to qualified but undocumented immigrants. The plan was inherently fair and would have made the state and its roads safer. Unfortunately, it also made Mr. Spitzer the target of some very nasty rhetoric from his political opponents, while his allies offered mostly weak-kneed support.

So, on Saturday, Mr. Spitzer left the field. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and he hastily announced a new plan, a revised three-tiered licensing system for New York’s drivers. Not all the details are available, but it looks like bad government policy and a bureaucratic nightmare in the making. Unwieldy and probably unworkable, it manages to offend a whole segment of pro-immigration New Yorkers, some of the few political friends Mr. Spitzer has left.
As outlined, the new agreement between New York and Washington would create three licenses. One would comply with the still-undecided federal standards for the Real ID Act, and another would be for those who want to go to Canada without using a passport. The third license would not be valid as identification to board airplanes or enter federal buildings.
It is license No. 3 — the cheapest and easiest to get — that would be offered to all New York residents, including the undocumented. The Spitzer people say that they would not share information about the immigration status of any of these third-tier drivers. But as immigrant advocates have already pointed out, who else would really want this license except those who cannot qualify for anything else? As other states have learned, a separate but unequal license for immigrants does not work. Undocumented workers would not come out of the shadows to apply for a driving permit that they believe would make them a target for any official on a crusade against illegal immigrants.
The new Spitzer licensing proposal also raises another serious concern. The governor could be turning his constituents into the nation’s guinea pigs for the controversial Real ID, a kind of national identification card. Passed in 2005, the Real ID law offers little money to states that are being asked to come up with a super-secure identification card by 2013. Already, a number of states have declared they will not comply with the act — citing expense or privacy concerns. Some have said that a “gold standard” security card would brand those who don’t have it as suspicious. Others question what happens when somebody creates a fraudulent Real ID.
Governor Spitzer’s pivot from his difficult stand on driver’s licenses is a disappointment. The way he swiftly made, and then unmade, this decision is unsettling. It revives questions about whether this rookie governor seeks enough wise counsel and then listens to it. It leaves us wondering whether Mr. Spitzer has the willpower to remain focused on his better plans and better instincts in the future.