Many constituents have reached out to me to express their opinions about Governor Spitzer recently announced administrative policy change that will make driver licenses -- and, by extension, auto insurance -- available without regard to immigration status. I firmly believe that this is a positive development for all New Yorkers.
As you may know, the overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrants who cannot get licenses and insurance because of their immigration status do not stop driving. To fulfill both work and family obligations, they drive anyway, with no guarantee that they know about American traffic laws, or even how to drive. As a result, they contribute disproportionately to accidents and hit-and-runs.
In its report, "Unlicensed to Kill," the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that unlicensed drivers are almost five times more likely to be in a fatal crash than are validly licensed drivers. By giving non-citizens the incentive to learn to drive according to our laws, and to produce documentation proving their identity without risking deportation in the process, we will only increase the safety of New York's roads.
As New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) Commissioner David Swarts explained when the policy shift was announced, "This policy change allows the DMV to focus its resources on its core mission -- to ensure that every person driving on our roads is fit to drive and can prove his or her identity. Currently, too many drivers are unlicensed and uninsured simply because they do not have a social security number."
Under the new rules, a Social Security card would no longer be required if there are enough other documents, like a current foreign passport, birth certificate and other valid and verifiable documents to prove identity. The DMV will still use its secure "6-point ID requirement," which has long been the policy for U.S. citizens as well. There will not be a greater burden for U.S. citizens as a result of this policy shift.
Tied to the policy change, the Governor and Commissioner also announced plans to implement new anti-fraud measures to increase the security of the licensing system as it expands to include a new population of New Yorkers. These measures are specially designed to authenticate and verify foreign-source identity documents.
By extending driver's licenses to non-citizens, we will not only ensure that more of New York drivers are qualified to be behind the wheel, and make it possible for these newly licensed drivers to obtain insurance, but we will also bring more people out of the shadows and into the DMV database. As Deputy Secretary for Homeland Security Michael Balboni explained: "We have been meticulous in ensuring that this change in policy, and the new security measures we are putting in place, strengthen our homeland security efforts by licensing a population of New Yorkers who previously had no public records." Likewise, Susan Ginsburg, a former staff member of the 9/11 Commission who is now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and an adviser to the federal Department of Homeland Security, recently told The New York Times, "Consistency of identity is critical to law enforcement and counterterrorism, and it's the consistency of identity that the New York system is designed to increase."
Some people have expressed a concern that U.S. citizens would have to produce their passports to board domestic flights as a result of this policy change, but this concern is presently unfounded. While New York driver's licenses are unlikely to meet the guidelines for a federally recognized license known as a "Real ID," the Real ID requirement won't take effect until 2013. At that time, federal law will mandate that a Real ID or passport be presented to board an airplane in the United States, but there are more than five years for New York to work out a solution, such as offering both Real IDs for those who want them, as well as standard driver's licenses, or for the federal statute to be changed.
In any case, as was noted in the October 9, 2007 New York Times, "having a driver's license should not make it easier to board a domestic airplane flight, because foreign passports are already accepted as identification at airports. Moreover, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration said, neither a foreign passport nor an American driver's license is among the criteria used to determine whether the bearer will be subject to extra security screening."
I should note that eight other states -- Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington -- do not require drivers to prove legal status in order to obtain a license. What's good for public safety in these states is also good for New York.