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Faced with Bipartisan Opposition, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer Drops Effort to Grant Drivers’ Licenses to Undocumented Immigrants

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New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer announced Wednesday that he is dropping his plan to grant drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants. The plan had drawn praise from immigrant rights activists but fierce opposition from Republicans and many Democrats. We speak to Chung-Wha Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer announced Wednesday that he’s dropping his plan to grant drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants. The plan had drawn praise from immigrant rights activists but fierce opposition from Republicans and many Democrats. Spitzer spoke to the press on Wednesday.

GOV. ELIOT SPITZER: I have listened to the legitimate concerns of the public and those who would be affected by my proposal and have concluded that pushing forward unilaterally in the face of such strong opposition would be counterproductive. It does not take a stethoscope to hear the pulse of New Yorkers on this topic.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The governor added that he still believed the proposal would have benefited New Yorkers. He had previously defended the plan as a, quote, “commonsense” public safety measure that makes licenses and insurance available regardless of immigration status.

But Spitzer faced a growing storm of criticism from politicians and the mainstream media ever since he first announced the plan in late September. CNN anchor Lou Dobbs was particularly harsh in his almost daily condemnation of Governor Spitzer and the driver’s license plan. I want to play excerpts from his show, Lou Dobbs Tonight. They aired in October.

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 citizens and ignoring—ignoring—the will of New York state citizens. It’s absolutely an outrage.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Governor Spitzer’s driver’s license policy featured prominently at the October 30th Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia. This is an excerpt featuring presidential hopefuls Senators Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd. It begins with a question from the host, NBC’s Tim Russert.

TIM RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer has proposed giving drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. You told the national New Hampshire editorial board it makes a lot of sense. Why does it make a lot of sense to give an illegal immigrant a driver’s license?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform. We know in New York we have several million, at any one time, who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It’s probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum.

I believe we need to get back to comprehensive immigration reform, because no state, no matter how well-intentioned, can fill this gap. There needs to be federal action on immigration reform.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Clinton at the October 30th Democratic presidential debate.

Chung-Wha Hong is with us now, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. Her group supported Governor Spitzer’s driver’s license policy. She joins us here in the firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now! What happened? Were you more surprised by Governor Spitzer proposing this, going along with this, or pulling back?

CHUNG-WHA HONG: I don’t think anybody could have foreseen what would have—what happened. We campaigned for several years to restore driver licenses to undocumented immigrants, because—not because we’re immigrant rights activists, but because we’re pro-public-safety people, really, because we push for that under the assumption that: Why should we be carving out a million people from our public safety rules and regulations? Let’s have them come out of the shadows, in the system, so that they could drive safely, and that we need to shatter this myth that you can’t be pro-security and pro-immigrant at the same time. And so, we were praising the governor for his very pro-public-safety policy, that was tough, but fair.

And then the backlash started. And it is just so amazing how people, anti-immigrant, have taken this issue as the red meat issue of the century and have used this to really foment the kind of hysteria, anti-immigrant hysteria, against undocumented immigrants. And it really is a sad state of the debate, you know, on immigration reform. And it just—our country has to learn how to talk about immigration in a different way; otherwise, we are going to be permanently divided along the lines of legal versus illegal, and we cannot let this happen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But my understanding—and I wrote about this in the Daily News today in my column, that the—this is just obviously part of a broader national issue that is raging now, in that, for instance, last week the Republicans managed to put onto an appropriations bill in Washington a requirement that the federal EOC can no longer prosecute cases where employers are discriminating against their employees who speak a language other than English at the job. And many Democrats, however, voted with the Republicans, fearing this very backlash you’re talking about. And now, there is a furious divide in the Democratic Party over this issue. Some are saying that Governor Spitzer made this decision in advance of tonight’s debate, Democratic debate, to prevent the issue from creating more problems for Hillary Clinton or any of the other Democratic candidates. Your reaction to how the Democrats are functioning, at the national and right here at the local level?

CHUNG-WHA HONG: First of all, I think there’s a huge vacuum in leadership when it comes to immigration issues on the national level. There are either—there’s only two kinds of people when it comes to immigrants. You either jump on the anti-immigrant bandwagon, and you just trash, trash, trash undocumented immigrants, and you’ll see your poll, you know, going up, or you just avoid the issue and try to give us sound bites, instead of putting out a comprehensive solution.

And I think the—I think both parties just need to step up, and somebody’s got to put out a solution. Otherwise, 12 million people who are here illegally, right, they’re not going away. And it’s hypocritical for us to be calling them criminals, because they come here and work in these jobs that our economy needs, and we all benefit from them. And for us to turn around and call them criminals, as if we’re doing them some kind of a favor by giving them drivers’ licenses, is just, you know, out of this world.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Senator Clinton was responsible for putting tremendous pressure on Spitzer, since she is from New York, of course, and she’s the one who’s being targeted by the other Democrats and Republicans on this issue?

CHUNG-WHA HONG: You know, I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but I know that there’s pressure all around, right? You know, there’s Blue Dogs in Congress, you know, many, many Democrats who hold same anti-immigrant views as Republicans. I think Rahm Emanuel—you know, part of their kind of political strategy is to use the immigration issue when it helps them win races. So it’s really—there is no party line when it comes to immigration, right? There’s no coherent vision on immigration.

Now, they need to—my big message to Democrats is that, look, you can’t avoid this issue. If you’re going to lay out a vision for how this country—how you’re going to run this country, immigration needs to be integrated into that vision. Otherwise, when you talk about healthcare, they’re going to be, “Well, let’s exclude immigrants.” When you talk about education, “Well, let’s exclude immigrants.” It’s going to come up every single issue that they talk about, and they just have to deal with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s end with this ad that just was unveiled in Iowa by the Republican presidential contender, Congressmember Tom Tancredo.

REP. TOM TANCREDO: Hi, I’m Tom Tancredo, and I approve this message, because someone needs to say it.

NARRATOR: There are consequences to open borders beyond the 20 million aliens who have come to take our jobs. Islamic terrorists now freely roam U.S. soil, jihadists who froth with hate, here to do as they have in London, Spain, Russia—the price we pay for spineless politicians who refuse to defend our borders against those who come to kill.

AMY GOODMAN: For our radio listeners, it then says: “Tancredo, before it’s too late.” And the images, Juan, describe them in this ad.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The images are of a hooded young man in a shopping mall with a backpack that clearly is carrying a bomb, and he walks in, and then, as the ad dissolves, you hear the explosion of the bomb in the shopping mall.

AMY GOODMAN: Chung-Wha, final comment?

CHUNG-WHA HONG: This is so offensive. All I can say is that this country is going to be permanently divided if we don’t shatter this deep, deep line between legal and illegal and the kind of branding of immigrants as criminals and terrorists. Somebody has to step up and say that’s not the way to go. We need to include immigrants. Immigrants are part of the solution. And we have a vision of America that includes them. We’re not going to deport everybody and turn our country into a police state. So we need to do that in this country right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Chung-Wha Hong, I want to thank you very much for being with us, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. When we come back, Wayne Barrett joins us, leading New York reporter and biographer of Rudolph Giuliani. Stay with us.

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