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February 20, 2008

The Spitzer Effect

posted by Josh Goodman

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced last September that he wanted to change driver's license policy as it relates to illegal immigrants. He succeeded, although not in the way he intended.

Spitzer's plan would have removed the requirement that New York driver's license applicants prove that they are in the country legally. That idea prompted a political backlash and Spitzer backed down. What's more, the attention Spitzer brought to the issue has led other states to reassess their own licensing rules.

In the announcement, Spitzer's office noted that eight states already had policies similar to the one he was trying to implement. What's been happening in those states since then?

Two have already changed their policies:

Michigan: "Illegal immigrants can't get Michigan driver's licenses, state attorney general says" (AP, 12/18/07)

Oregon: "Governor signs law to strengthen license rules" (Statesman Journal, 2/17/08)

Two more seem likely to do so:

Maryland: "Immigrant Driver ID Rejected by O'Malley" (Washington Post, 1/16/08)

Utah: "Illegals may lose driving privileges" (Deseret Morning News, 2/12/08)

In one state, this is a top legislative issue, but the current bill doesn't require proof of legal status to get a license:

Maine: "Driver's license residency rule debated" (Portland Press-Herald, 2/14/08)

In the other three states, Washington, Hawaii and New Mexico, nothing has happened yet, so far as I can tell. Still, in the fairly inert world of state policy, these actions represent rapid change.

In fairness to Spitzer, this trend began before he announced his proposal. Besides the increased prominence of the immigration debate, the new federal driver's license standards in the Real ID Act are also pushing states in this direction.

However, the controversy in New York has served as a backdrop to the subsequent debates in other states. Lawmakers recognized the political danger of allowing illegal immigrants to get drivers' licenses and acted accordingly. 

This development says a couple of things about the broader debate over immigration policy.

For the most part, illegal immigration hasn't been effective as a campaign issue over the past couple of years. One reason why, in my opinion, is that voters have perceived the issue simply as "illegal immigration" -- a massively complex topic on which the nation's two major parties, and many Americans, are internally conflicted.

If immigration ever switched from being a macro issue to a series of micro issues, it might become more politically potent. In most states, public opinion is strongly against letting illegal immigrants get drivers' licenses, letting them get in-state tuition, etc. If those pieces of the debate ever really dominated the public's attention, the issue might move voters.

The aftermath of Spitzer's proposal also demonstrates why that isn't likely to happen. Politicians who favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants have, on the state level, conceded parts of the debate, such as the drivers' license issue. Likewise, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, both Democrats, have signed major bills to crackdown on illegal immigration, despite misgivings.

In essence, elected officials have accepted policy defeats, believing (probably correctly) that in doing so they have made electoral defeats less likely. Of course, electoral victories are less meaningful when they don't result in policy victories.


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