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New York State Senate Votes Down Move to Allow Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Workers

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The New York State Senate has voted to oppose Governor Eliot Spitzer’s September 21st decision to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Spitzer noted the high number of accidents caused by uninsured drivers and described the new policy as a public safety measure that makes licenses and insurance available regardless of immigration status. We’re joined by New York State Senator Eric Schneiderman and La Fuente Executive Director Amy Sugimori. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Here in New York, the State Senate voted Monday to oppose Governor Eliot Spitzer’s September 21st decision to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. The governor noted the high number of accidents caused by uninsured drivers and described the new policy as a public safety measure that makes licenses and insurance available regardless of immigration status. He called it “a commonsense change that deals practically with the reality that hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants live among us.” Immigrant rights and civil liberties groups welcome the new policy, which reverses former Governor George Pataki’s immigrant exclusion policy.

But the change continues to face increasing opposition from Republican and some Democratic lawmakers, as well as groups opposed to illegal immigration. Republican Senator James Tedisco calls the policy “unlawful, risky, reckless, and irresponsible.”

CNN anchor Lou Dobbs has been particularly harsh in his criticism of Governor Spitzer. I want to play excerpts of his recent comments on this issue from his show Lou Dobbs Tonight.

LOU DOBBS: It’s hard to imagine what this governor is thinking and how he can even possibly rationalize this in any kind of conscience, talking about it being practical and moral to simply provide those licenses. Where is the practicality? Where is the morality and his obligation to fulfill his responsibilities to citizens of the State of New York and, certainly, to uphold the law? It is — again, this governor, in his early going, is demonstrating such absurdity and a disappointing capacity that it is — it’s breathtaking.

KITTY PILGRIM: This, done by executive order. That’s one of the big sticking points for many people.

LOU DOBBS: Yeah. You know, this is a governor who requires training wheels. And that may be the kindest thing I could say about his position.

He may be what he calls a steamroller, but I think he’s a weak-kneed, spineless steamroller who is absolutely acting against the interest of his people and ignoring — ignoring — the will of New York State citizens. It’s absolutely an outrage.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anchor Lou Dobbs, on the driver’s license policy change in New York.

Eric Schneiderman is a Democratic state senator who supports Governor Spitzer’s proposal. He joins me now in the firehouse studio in New York. We’re also joined by Amy Sugimori. She is the executive director of La Fuente, a New York-based labor collaborative that works with immigrant communities directly affected by the new law. Welcome, both of you, to Democracy Now!


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Eric, your reaction to some of the Lou Dobbs comments about Governor Spitzer and his policy?

SEN. ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Well, we really stumbled into this vicious national debate, which — with what I thought was a relatively straightforward change in the policies of the DMV. I mean, they’ve got all their facts wrong. This is not by an executive order. This is a simple administrative change, reversal of a Pataki administration policy. Before 2003, you didn’t have to be documented to get a license. There were thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who got licenses, none of them ever implicated in any sort of terrorism or anything. And then Pataki changed the policy, and Spitzer’s DMV just changed the policy back. So it didn’t seem to be that big of a deal to us.

But we’ve stumbled into this vicious national movement of the new nativism that is really seeking to demonize immigrants, and I think that’s why there’s so much confusion around this, because the actual facts about the driver’s license policy and how AAA has told us that it will make the roads safer, you get unlicensed drivers off the roads, it has tremendous benefits, it will bring down insurance rates, we’ll know where people live so we can track them — that’s all being lost in this really amazingly vicious anti-immigrant demagoguery. And there’s a very thin veneer of respectability over the out-and-out racism that underlies it. So I’ve been shocked to stumble into this, on something that I thought was fairly straightforward.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask you about that, because I talked this week and wrote a column in today’s Daily News about the climate that was in Albany this week when the debate occurred.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I think it was a five-hour-long debate in the New York State Senate. And some of the senators that I spoke to said that they had never seen the kind of racial tension and aggressive anti-immigrant sentiment that they saw that day. Could you talk a little bit about that debate?

SEN. ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Yeah, I think that, well, it really started before that debate. I think that Governor Spitzer has made no secret of his desire to shake things up in Albany and challenge the leadership of the Republicans in the Senate, which is — for which I commend him. They have now adopted a posture that whatever he does, they’re going to try and take him down. And they saw an opportunity here, because the public is so worked up with this — you know, Lou Dobbs gets to a lot of people every night. And there are a lot of demagogues out there who are really, you know, preaching this anti-immigrant stuff.

And so, the Republicans had invited to their hearings this group of people, who you referred to in your column, who are associated with FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, who are just out-and-out xenophobes and say things like, you know, Americans have to sleep with pistols by their beds because so many of them have been attacked by illegal immigrants. These people are — you know, this is the worst in the great American tradition of the rough assimilation of immigrants. And the Republicans invited them to a New York State Senate hearing to speak. So the groundwork was laid, and they insist on saying this is about terrorism, equating all of the hard-working immigrants we’ve got here in our city, who Mayor Bloomberg, among others, has said they’re making the city great — equating them with terrorists, equating them with criminals.

And the atmosphere was very, very tense. And then some of my colleagues were basically calling them out. And, you know, at one point there’s a confrontation. Senator DeFrancisco from upstate confronted Senator Kevin Parker and said, “Well, are you saying — would it offend you if someone called you a racist?” And Senator Parker, to his credit, said, “If I was a racist and I was saying racist things and I was doing racist things, probably not.” But that was — that — you never see that kind of debate on the Senate floor.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Amy Sugimori, this obviously is a national issue. There have been — these kinds of debates have been held in numerous states. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to office and immediately repealed a license bill there in California. How is this emblematic of what’s going on across many of the states in the country?

AMY SUGIMORI: I mean, I think the unfortunate reality is that we are dealing with a completely dysfunctional immigration system that doesn’t work, and that means that we’ve got millions of people, up to 12 million people, who are living and working in this country who can’t get a green card, who can’t get a visa, where it’s not an option, it’s not possible. These are people who are contributing to society, people who are working, who are contributing to the economy.

And obviously it hits a nerve. People are upset about the dysfunction of the immigration system. Some people have chosen to retreat into fear, into discrimination, into distrust. Other folks are just trying to make a living and support their kids and deal with the fact that there are so many barriers to access when you don’t — when you aren’t able to get status. And that has turned into something that’s so much bigger than what it is.

So we get to the point when you’re looking about sensible policies at the local level, at the state level. What works for everybody? How do we make sure that folks are able to be tested, licensed, insured? People can drive so they can take their kids to school, so they can go to the hospital, so they can get to work. Instead, it becomes this debate about what’s wrong with our immigration system, how do we feel about newcomers, what kind of a country are we. And we can’t just get down to business and do things that work for the state. And we see that here in New York; we’ve seen that in all of the other states that have dealt with this issue; and, certainly, we’ve seen that with the failure of our U.S. Congress to come together and pass any kind of meaningful immigration reform.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But then, what do you say to those critics who say, “Why give an official state license to someone who is in the country illegally? Aren’t you sanctioning the continued situation of them being in the country illegally?”

AMY SUGIMORI: I think the question is, what’s good public policy? Do we want a system in which people are driving and can’t be licensed, can’t have insurance, where we don’t know how safe our roads are? Do we want a system in which people are pushed into an underground, where they can’t identify themselves and cooperate with law enforcement? Do we want a situation in which we can’t even account for who’s here and where people are and that people are not able to just function and engage in day-to-day life? I don’t think we want that at the local level.

Is it New York state’s fault that we have a dysfunctional immigration system? No. Does New York have to deal with the day-to-day reality of what that means? Yes. So I think, you know, that’s an important question that we need to answer. Do we want to have good policies, or do we want to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that the problem doesn’t exist?

SEN. ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: I think — and the fundamental misconception that really — on which all this new nativism is based is this absurd notion that we’re going to get rid of these thirteen million people who are living here. I mean, this is — there is no thoughtful authority who has ever expressed the view that we’re going to deport all of them. You’re not — it’ll be the largest roundup and deportation in world history. It’s not going to happen now.

The federal government has to fix the immigration laws. They have to deal with the border. Every proposal for a compromise involves some path to legalization for some undocumented immigrants. That’s — while that’s going on, we have to deal with the reality, that these people are here for a long time. They’re not going home if we abuse them and we don’t — we take away their driver’s license and we make them afraid to talk to the police, so they won’t report crimes, and we make them afraid to go to the hospital, so they’ll be just sick and spreading diseases. The notion that we can abuse them into going back to these countries where, you know, they fled — poverty there is a lot worse than what they’re experiencing here. They’re here to make money for their families. They’re not going home. So, as state and local officials, we have to deal with that reality.

My district in Washington Heights, big immigrant community, absolute worst nightmare if our local cops and other public safety people have to report immigrants to ICE. Every witness to every crime disappears. You know, more troubles on the road with people fleeing access. We’ve got to be real about this. And the fundamental misconception is the notion that somehow we’re going to get rid of — look, I’d love Mr. Dobbs to explain his plan for actually moving all the immigrants out. It’s ridiculous. It’s not going to happen.

AMY SUGIMORI: I think it’s also just important to focus on what are driver’s licenses. Driver’s licenses are licenses to drive, and they show that people are who they say they are. They’ve never been a representation of immigration status. Everybody assumes, of course, you’ve got a green card, you can get a driver’s license. That doesn’t seem to be a point of debate. So they’re not representations of U.S. citizenship, nor should they be taken to mean anything more than what they are.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask you, Eric Schneiderman, the vote in the Senate was to overturn the governor’s new policy, but it did not pass in the Assembly.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Still, there are all of these county clerks who are in essence rebelling against the new policy and are threatening to — or are trying to challenge it in court. What do you see in terms of how this plays out and to what degree the Republicans in New York state or in other parts of the country are going to use this issue of illegal immigration continually now over the next year in terms of winning political support?

SEN. ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Yeah. Well, I think they’re — I mean, you have to answer that question on two levels. On the facts, I think the governor’s position legally is unassailable. I mean, this is something that — all he did was reverse an administrative decision the Pataki administration has made. He clearly has the authority to do it. The clerks have no legal standing to refuse to comply with this sort of an order. If it goes to court, he’ll win.

But the other part of it is that absolutely the Republicans in the national xenophobic movement are going to use this over and over again, because they’re good at whipping people up into a frenzy. And locally, it feeds into the desire of the Senate Republicans to target the governor, because he’s their arch foe now. And nationally, it feeds into this effort to really do — this is the worst kind of conflict you can have in a society, where a vulnerable minority group is targeted to be scapegoated for all of the ills of society, and people’s insecurity about globalization is all being targeted.

I mean, we’ve seen this before. This time it’s not the Japanese, it’s not the Jews, it’s not the African Americans; it’s undocumented immigrants. And this is the most dangerous thing we can have in our society. The Ku Klux Klan, according to the Anti-Defamation League, was about to go out of business, and they switched to anti-immigrant tactics, and now they’re having a recruiting boom. So this has rescued the Ku Klux Klan. This is not a — this anti-immigrant movement is not a minor matter, and we should not expect it to go away anytime soon.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But in the same vein, there’s not a whole lot of — other than Governor Spitzer and yourself and a few progressive Democrats, there’s not a whole lot of folks, even in the Democratic Party, who are out front in defending these changes in policies and attempting to change the tenor of the kind of debate that’s occurring over immigration.

SEN. ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Well, that’s why I described it as a vulnerable minority group. They’re not voters. Their political power is limited. So it takes some courage to stand up for them. And the people on the other side are passionate. And, you know, 72 percent of the people in a poll in New York state said they were opposed to the governor. To his credit, Governor Spitzer is sticking with it. He knows he’s right, and he’s working to turn people’s minds around. It will happen.

But this is — it’s, you know — it feels like I’m arguing for integration in 1948. I mean, this is — it takes awhile for us to win these debates. But Amy and the other people in the immigrants rights coalition — and a lot of labor, incidentally — are very strong on this, and I think that’s an important aspect of the struggle as we go forward, that, unlike periods in the past, American labor has really gotten its act together to a great extent, as far as immigration is concerned, and that’s something that gives us a lot of confidence that we’re going to succeed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: OK, well, I’d like to thank both of you for being with us. Amy Sugimori and Eric Schneiderman, the Democratic New York state senator, and Amy, the executive director of La Fuente, a New York-based immigrant labor collaborative.

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