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N.Y. to allow licenses for all

Illegal immigrants will soon be able to drive in the state legally.

September 22, 2007|Karla Schuster and Susana Enriquez | Newsday

new york -- New York will soon become the largest state to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses legally -- a policy that is sure to stoke the national debate about immigrants' rights and domestic security.

The change, announced Friday by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, means that 500,000 to 1 million illegal immigrants will be eligible for licenses by presenting a valid foreign passport. Since 2002, the state had required applicants to provide a Social Security number or proof of legal status to get a license.

"As long as I am governor, we will not pretend that they do not exist, we will not cut them off from participating in our society, and we will not become part of a myth that is propagated at the federal level that they are not here," Spitzer said at a news conference in Manhattan on Friday. "We will not permit the DMV to become a surrogate" Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Eight other states, including Maryland and Michigan, do not require proof of legal immigration status to get a license.

The decision immediately drew effusive praise and sharp rebukes, although supporters and critics agreed on one thing: The policy will have a sweeping effect on the lives of New Yorkers.

Critics, including Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), said that the policy showed a naive disregard for increased security risks posed by people who illegally enter the United States.

Spitzer and immigrant advocacy groups contend that by reducing the number of unlicensed drivers on the road, the new policy will improve traffic safety and save state motorists an estimated $120 million per year in insurance premiums, because with fewer unlicensed drivers there will be fewer uninsured motorists. The policy also will generate an estimated $6 million in new license fees, state officials said.

"I understand the fear of 9/11, and I agree security is essential, but our nation is an immigrant nation . . . and to deny law-abiding immigrant New Yorkers licenses . . . is to give in to that fear," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, meanwhile, said he opposed Spitzer's plan. He said the best way to reduce traffic accidents and insurance rates was "just to enforce the present motor vehicle laws."

Nadia Marin-Molina, executive director of the Workplace Project, a Long Island immigrant advocacy group, said the policy was simply practical.

"There are so many people here who are supporting families who need driver's licenses in order to continue to do that," she said. "People need to drive, especially on Long Island and upstate New York where there isn't good public transportation."

Along with the easing of the legal status requirement, the state plans to institute scanning and authentication technology to verify documents submitted as proof of identity for a license.

But right now, the state's new policy does not appear to comply with a proposed regulation -- called Real ID -- from the federal Department of Homeland Security that would require Americans to carry a standardized driver's license to board planes or enter federal buildings. Officials from Homeland Security and the INS did not return phone calls Friday.

The state policy will be phased in beginning in December. The DMV will notify about 152,000 people who had licenses but could not renew them that they are eligible to re-apply.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank, said his organization supported a "firewall strategy" in which illegal immigrants could not get driver's licenses or open bank accounts. "It makes living here in violation of federal law that much easier," he said of the New York license policy.

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