Commentary: N.Y. governor offers a commonsense solution

SAN DIEGO -- Hillary Clinton is taking flak for the roundabout way in which she answered a question about whether New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was right to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

SAN DIEGO -- Hillary Clinton is taking flak for the roundabout way in which she answered a question about whether New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was right to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

During a presidential debate, Clinton insisted that Spitzer was trying to fill the "vacuum" left by Washington's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Then Clinton insisted she never said that she supported the Spitzer plan, only that she understood the reasons for it. Then, she defended the plan. Finally, Clinton accused debate moderator Tim Russert of NBC News of playing "gotcha" by posing such a tough question.

In light of her flip-flops, some critics compared Clinton to -- ouch -- John Kerry. That's funny. On the driver's license issue, I'm sort of a John Kerry in reverse. I was against the idea before I was for it.

At first, I worried that by issuing licenses to illegal immigrants, we were being too accommodating. But then I heard about police chiefs who supported the idea because they wanted a way to keep track of those who use our roads and make sure that drivers have proper training and insurance. I also realized that the unlicensed and uninsured are more likely to flee the scene of an accident. And so it made sense to me to bring illegal immigrant drivers into the system.

But I still didn't think that whatever license that illegal immigrants carry in their wallets should look similar to the traditional driver's license carried by the rest of us -- especially given the additional security concerns that arose after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Those concerns, however, help make the case for driver's licenses for illegal immigrants despite the insistence of those who argue the opposite is true.


Along comes Spitzer, with a commonsense solution and the courage to see it through despite a firestorm of vitriol, protest and -- his words -- "racist venom." The governor has devised a clever compromise in the form of a three-tiered system: a special, secured "enhanced driver's license" only available to U.S. citizens; a license that conforms to the requirements of the federal Real ID Act, which sets nationwide standards for licensing, and would be available to both U.S. citizens and legal residents; or one that would be used by illegal immigrants for driving and identification purposes within New York state, but not valid as an ID for boarding airplanes or crossing international borders. That approach addressed most of my concerns.

But not every Democratic candidate feels the same way. While Barack Obama supported giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, Chris Dodd opposed it. A few days after the debate, during an appearance on ABC News' "This Week," John Edwards said he was opposed if the illegal immigrants in question had not made a good-faith effort to become U.S. citizens, but would support it if they had made such an effort.

The Bush administration has signed off on the plan, despite the unease of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who said he opposed giving any type of government-issued ID to illegal immigrants but that "federal law does allow states to make that choice."

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been all over the map on this issue, and now he seems to be looking for a compromise that would address security concerns without rewarding unlawful behavior.

As for Spitzer, he has made the correct choice -- even if it isn't the popular one. He has decided that New York's interest in determining who is in the state, and for what purpose, is vital enough that it can't be held hostage by the federal impasse over immigration reform or the all-or-nothing politics that kills the appetite for compromise. He has angered the extremes on both the right and the left, those who think he went too far or didn't go far enough. And he has provided a sensible alternative to what his more-conservative opponents seem to believe -- that if you ignore illegal immigrants, they'll go away.

Most refreshing of all, when Spitzer took heat for his position -- whether it was from political opponents in Albany or petty demagogues on cable television -- he stood his ground.

You see, Hillary. What the governor of New York has in mind makes sense. And the next time you're asked about it, just say so.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is .

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