E.g., 10/22/2014
E.g., 10/22/2014

New York Governor Abandons Driver's Licenses for the Unauthorized

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New York Governor Abandons Driver's Licenses for the Unauthorized

Two months after declaring that driver's licenses would be available to all New York State residents regardless of their legal status, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer said yesterday he is abandoning the plan.

After his announcement, Spitzer criticized the federal government's inaction on immigration issues and lamented the limited capacity of state and local governments to address the issue.

"The federal government has lost control of its borders, has allowed millions of undocumented immigrants to enter our country, and now has no solution to deal with it," Spitzer said.

"When the federal government abdicates its responsibility, states, cities, towns, and villages still have to deal with the practical reality of that failure. And we face that reality every day in our schools, in our hospitals, and on our roads."

In September, Spitzer presented a plan that would have provided New York residents standard licenses regardless of legal status. The governor argued that providing the licenses would allow as many as 1 million New York drivers to obtain licenses and auto insurance without fear of deportation, thereby bringing down premiums and contributing to road safety.

Critics objected, claiming that providing licenses to unauthorized immigrants would endanger national security.

In an October 27 joint conference with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Spitzer retreated from his original plan and announced that unauthorized immigrants would be issued special licenses that would be flagged "not for federal purposes." The special licenses, part of a three-tiered plan, would not have been valid for boarding flights, entering federal buildings, or crossing borders.

In addition to normal licenses and licenses tagged "not for federal purposes," New York would have offered licenses for those who frequently cross the Canadian border. Under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, travelers will need a government-issued photo identification — such as a driver's license — and proof of citizenship for land-border crossings as of January 2008.

Some border states have expressed concerns that crossing delays could slow commercial traffic and tourism. Washington, Vermont, and Arizona offer enhanced licenses that are valid for border crossings.

Both normal and enhanced licenses valid for border crossings will comply with the provisions of the Real ID Act of 2005. Real ID requires applicants for driver’s licenses to prove, with government-issued documents, their address, date of birth, and legal immigration status. States must then verify the validity of the documents presented to them.

Several states have opposed the Real ID requirements, stating that Congress did not provide money to meet the requirements or enough time to develop the necessary document databases. Advocacy groups have criticized Real ID, saying it is an unfunded mandate and would become a de facto national ID card.

Seven states currently allow immigrants to obtain driver's licenses regardless of legal status: Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. Utah allows individuals who cannot provide a valid Social Security number to obtain "driver privilege cards," which are not considered valid for identification purposes.

In January, Maine's state legislature will consider recommending that the state implement a residency requirement for most driver's licenses (with exceptions for college students and military personnel and their families).

As recently as last year, North Carolina and Tennessee also granted driver's licenses regardless of legal status, but both states have since stopped that practice.

  • Read the transcript of Spitzer's November 14 announcement here.
  • Read the transcript of the October 27 press conference with Spitzer and Chertoff here.
  • Read the New York Governor's Office factsheet on driver's licenses here.
  • Read more about the Secure Border Initiative in the March 2007 Policy Beat.
  • Read the State Department's information sheet on the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative here.

Policy Beat in Brief

Temporary Agricultural Worker Program (H-2A) Changes. Employers seeking to hire temporary foreign agricultural workers under the H-2A nonimmigrant visa program will no longer be required to advertise the job in print or broadcast media outside the area of employment according to a Department of Labor guidance letter. They still must advertise in the area of employment in addition to meeting other requirements, such as proving that employment of the H-2A worker will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of a similarly employed U.S. worker. Beyond farm work, H-2A workers are often employed in other seasonal agricultural activities such as sod harvesting, tree cutting, and orchard work. In 2006, 46,432 H-2A workers were admitted to the United States; 87 percent (40,283) were Mexicans.

  • Read the Department of Labor's Training and Employment Guidance Letter outlining changes to the H-2A nonimmigrant visa program here. (PDF)
  • Read more about temporary worker programs in the United States here.

Material Support Bar. DHS and the U.S. State Department will exempt certain Hmong individuals or groups from the material support provisions of the USA Patriot Act, allowing Hmong from Laos who already resettled in the United States to adjust their status and become lawful permanent residents. In addition, a small number of individuals will now be admissible despite having provided material support to Hmong individuals or groups. The USA Patriot Act of 2001 bars individuals who have provided material support to a terrorist organization from entering the United States. Many observers have criticized the bar as overly broad because it prohibits the entry of individuals who provided support to terrorist organizations under duress and those who combated authoritarian or dictatorial governments (including in collaboration with the United States).

Nonimmigrant Visa for Crime Victims. Seven years after Congress created the category, USCIS has announced the interim rule for implementing a visa for nonimmigrant crime victims. "U" nonimmigrant status, part of the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, is reserved for victims of crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse because of a crime, have information regarding the crime, and are willing to assist U.S. government officials in the investigation of the criminal activity. Annual admissions are capped at 10,000. Victims can apply for U-visa status from within or outside the United States. The U visa is valid for four years and, after three years of U.S. residency, U-visa holders can apply for permanent residency. Since 2000, USCIS has received approximately 7,000 requests for U visas, of which approximately 5,800 were approved on an interim basis.

  • Read the USCIS factsheet on U-visas here.
  • Read the interim rule on U-visas in the Federal Register here.

GAO Report on Border Security. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) praised progress but warned of continued vulnerabilities at the nation's points of entry. According to a November 2007 report, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) turned away over 200,000 inadmissible aliens and interdicted other violators. However, several thousand inadmissible aliens and violators entered the country through ports of entry due to weaknesses in the inspection process. Factors contributing to CBP's weaknesses include staff shortages, training development, and infrastructure in need of repair. CBP estimated that it would take about $4 billion to repair 163 land ports.

  • Read the text of the GAO report here.
  • Read more about U.S. border enforcement here.