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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Spitzer’s False Claim on Immigration

Eliot Spitzer falsely claimed that allowing immigrants living in the United States illegally to obtain driver’s licenses — a policy he attempted to implement as governor of New York in 2007 — is now the “law of the land.” Forty states, including New York, do not currently issue driver’s licenses to immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.

It is true, however, that the policy has been spreading rapidly in recent months. Of the 10 states that issue driver’s licenses regardless of legal status, seven passed such laws this year. Such legislation was introduced in 12 other states this year, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Spitzer, who is now a candidate for New York City comptroller, made this claim on ABC’s “This Week,” while speaking about the “independence of [his] voice” as governor (from 2007 to 2008).

Spitzer, July 14 (2:45 mark): I’ve asked the voters of this city to — for forgiveness. But I have also said, look at the totality of my record. The independence of my voice when it came to Wall Street, when it came to standing up on the environment, low-wage workers, immigrants. We were talking about immigrant rights just a few moments ago on your show. Years ago remember when I said, undocumented immigrants should have driver’s licenses the heavens opened and descended upon me. It’s now the law of the land. It is accepted across the nation.

Ten states — Washington, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon and Vermont — provide access to driver’s licenses or driving privilege cards (which are used for driving purposes only and generally are not valid for identification) to individuals regardless of legal status, Tanya Broder, senior staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, told us. So, these laws have been adopted in various parts of the country. But these laws are not “the law of the land,” as Spitzer claimed, or even the law in his home state of New York.

Spitzer’s Failed Policy Change

In September 2007, then-Gov. Spitzer announced a policy change that directed New York’s Department of Motor Vehicles to issue driver’s licenses to eligible individuals without regard to legal status. DMV Commissioner David Swarts said the change was made to “ensure that every person driving on our roads is fit to drive and can prove his or her identity.”

One month later, after his plan received widespread criticism from Republicans, Spitzer, along with U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, announced a new three-tier driver’s license system, with only one type of license available to immigrants residing in the country illegally.

New York governor press release, Oct. 27, 2007: As a result of this comprehensive license agreement, New York will offer three separate and secure licenses all used for different purposes: an “Enhanced Drivers License” for crossing the New York-Canadian border, a federally-approved license to fly on planes and a New York State license for driving and identification purposes.

The New York State license will continue to be available to both undocumented immigrants and lawful residents who simply choose not to purchase one of the federally-approved licenses, either because they already have a passport (35% of New Yorkers do), don’t want to pay an extra fee for one of these new federal licenses, or cannot meet the extra requirements necessary to get them. The state-approved license will simply say “not for U.S. government purposes.”

In November 2007, Spitzer reversed course and abandoned the policy. The New York Times reported that Spitzer said the policy was threatened by legal action, the state Legislature and county clerks who said they would refuse to abide by it. The Times quoted Spitzer as saying: “I am not willing to fight to the bitter end on something that will not ultimately be implemented.”

At the time that Spitzer announced the policy change, eight states — Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington — allowed immigrants without legal status to get licenses, according to both the Times and Spitzer’s office.

However, after 2007, five of these states subsequently passed legislation banning the practice. In 2008, Oregon, Michigan and Maine restricted licenses to those who could prove they were legal residents of the U.S., according to a 2008 National Conference of State Legislatures report (see pages 11-12).

Maryland followed in 2009 (see page 8 of this 2009 NCSL report), and Hawaii did the same in 2010 (page 22 of a 2010 NCSL report). A 2013 research report by the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research attributed the trend to several factors: “compliance with the federal REAL ID Act, response to high-profile identity fraud cases, concern about being a magnet for illegal immigrants from surrounding states, concern about immigrants taking jobs from U.S. citizens, consistency with other states, and political pressure.”

 Some States Offer Licenses

The policy Spitzer pushed in 2007 is certainly more popular in 2013. Legislation permitting states to issue licenses to individuals regardless of legal status has been rapidly spreading across the country. Prior to Jan. 1, only three states — Washington, New Mexico and Utah — had distributed driver’s licenses without requiring proof of legal status. Seven others have followed since, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Bills that would provide access to driver’s licenses to immigrants living in the country illegally were introduced in 12 other states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, in the past legislative session, according to Broder of the National Immigration Law Center, a legal advocacy group supporting low-income immigrants. (We’ve reprinted NILC’s map on state laws below.) That, of course, doesn’t mean the bills will pass. In January, New York state Sen. Ruben Diaz introduced a bill that would allow driving privilege cards for individuals who do not have legal status. It was referred to the transportation committee, with no further action on the bill. Diaz has introduced similar bills in recent years that have died in committee.

Driver's License Map
Source: National Immigration Law Center

Broder told us that the increasing number of states issuing licenses without proof of lawful status “mirrors the national conversation about immigrants, their contributions, political power, and the public safety benefits of ensuring that all drivers are trained, tested, licensed, insured and accountable for their driving records.”

In addition, most states issue licenses for young immigrants who receive “deferred action” of deportation under the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy — which allows immigrants who came to the country as children, and meet other criteria, to remain in the U.S. temporarily. As of April 2013, officials in 45 states had confirmed (through statements or the granting of licenses) that DACA recipients will be eligible for driver’s licenses or driver’s privilege cards, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Two states — Arizona and Nebraska — have changed their rules to prohibit DACA recipients from obtaining driver’s licenses.

It’s fair for Spitzer to say that legislation allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses is “accepted across the nation,” as states of different regions have adopted such legislation — with the exception of the South. And he certainly would have been correct to say that the policy is rapidly gaining acceptance. But, instead, Spitzer wrongly said the policy was “the law of the land.” In neither New York, nor the country as a whole, are illegal immigrants granted driver’s licenses.

— Rachel Finkel, with Lori Robertson