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Steven Malanga
What the Driver’s License Debate Ignored
Governor Spitzer’s plan was another incentive for illegal behavior.
19 November 2007

During the debate over Governor Eliot Spitzer’s now-defunct plan to provide driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, most discussion centered on the scheme’s national-security implications. But few people asked an obvious question: Why does New York State, nearly 2,000 miles from the Mexican border, have so many illegals in the first place? Why do undocumented immigrants—whether they come through the Mexican border, by boat from Caribbean islands, or by plane through our airports—bypass so many other states and wind up here?

The answer helps demonstrate why Spitzer’s plan was so wrongheaded. America has an illegal immigration problem largely because we give illegals incentives to come here. Illegal immigrants gain access in the United States to better-paying jobs than they can find at home because we’ve let employers ignore our labor laws and hire undocumented workers. Meanwhile, state and local governments grant illegals taxpayer-funded benefits to which they aren’t entitled. The more privileges we bestow on those who’re here without authorization, the more we induce them to stay—and others to come.

Consider some New York State and New York City policies. Several years ago, the New York City Council held a hearing on the problems of day laborers—illegals who often work “off the books” and under tough conditions. During the hearing, at which several such laborers described how they had entered the country illegally, a Bloomberg administration representative testified that the mayor had ordered city agencies to ignore immigrants’ legal status in extending these workers city benefits, including “health insurance, a full range of preventive primary and acute medical care, domestic violence counseling, emergency shelters, police protection, consumer fraud protections, and protection against discrimination through the Human Rights Commission.” A lawyer working under Spitzer, then the state attorney general, described how his office was aggressively pursuing employers who took advantage of these workers; he said zip about the illegal status of the workers themselves. “Attorney General Spitzer has taken the position that New York State labor law applies to all workers in New York State regardless of their immigration status,” the representative testified. Then a state senator explained how he was pressing the NYPD to protect illegal workers from abuse at the ad hoc sites where they congregated for jobs.

Throughout the long hearing, only one person, a community leader from Queens, noted the strain that the flood of day workers placed on local neighborhoods and resources, including “litter on the streets, public urination, drinking” around the job sites. No one asked if the illegal laborers were taking jobs from unskilled, unemployed New Yorkers.

Proponents of Governor Spitzer’s license plan claimed that it would bring immigrants “out of the shadows” by giving them more freedom and mobility. One advocate described how the plan would help illegals get to and from jobs more easily. No one in the Spitzer administration seemed to think that it might be a bad idea to make it easier for illegals to get a toehold in our economy at a time when unemployment is rising and so many U.S.-born unskilled adults, who compete most directly with illegal immigrants, aren’t working.

At CNN’s presidential debate last Thursday night, New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who instituted a licensing plan for illegals in his state, said that he approved of Spitzer’s idea because the federal government had failed to deal with the problem of illegal immigration. “States have to act when the federal government and the Congress doesn’t act,” Richardson said, echoing Spitzer’s rationale.

But both governors are being disingenuous. The federal government is not the only source of our problem: state and local officials who provide illegals with privileges and benefits are helping draw them to America, while ensuring that those already here have no reason to leave. It’s time that Spitzer and Richardson stopped grumbling about the lousy job that the federal government is doing on illegal immigration. They’re doing plenty to contribute to the mess themselves.

Steven Malanga is senior editor of City Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is a coauthor of The Immigration Solution.

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More by Steven Malanga:
The Cost of New York
A Tale of Two Scandals
Borrowing Trouble
More . . .
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