The Unwelcome Mat

States are at their peril when they try to ease rules to make life in the U.S. less difficult for illegal immigrants.
by | November 2007

Georgia, Oklahoma and Arizona require businesses to check on new hires by utilizing E-Verify, a federal program that weeds out illegal workers. This summer, Illinois banned companies there from using E- Verify.

Half-a-dozen states have created new rules designed to prevent illegal immigrants from getting drivers' licenses. In September, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer announced that New York would no longer require drivers to prove legal residency to get a license.

These crosscutting currents have existed in state policy for years. But now, with every immigration-related policy decision receiving heightened scrutiny, the question is whether states will continue to experiment with policies that ease rules for immigrants.

The experiences of New York and Illinois indicate that the decisions are bound to generate controversy, even in states that have had immigrant-friendly policies for years. Spitzer, without the approval of legislators, made New York the ninth state where illegal immigrants can obtain a license to drive. Since the move reverses a decision of the previous Pataki administration, New York has been mailing letters about the change to 150,000 people who lost their licenses previously. "This is going to mean," says Amy Sugimori, executive director of La Fuente, a labor and immigrant advocacy group, "that we're going to have on the road potentially tens of thousands of people who will be tested, licensed drivers with auto insurance."

Many people in New York don't see it that way. Although Spitzer's plan includes new anti-fraud measures, Republican legislators have pounced on it as a homeland security risk. A dozen county clerks have vowed to disregard it. And even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has a pro-immigrant reputation, questioned whether the policy runs afoul of the federal Real ID Act, which will require enhancements in drivers' license security.

In Illinois, opposition has come from a different source: the federal government. E-Verify, an online database designed to identify fraudulent Social Security numbers, is a favorite tool of the Bush administration and a number of states.

Lawmakers in Illinois, however, echoed complaints about E-Verify from immigrant advocates and some business groups. They claim that the system is fraught with errors, creating bureaucratic hassles for businesses and prospective employees alike. Illinois' law, which Governor Rod Blagojevich signed in August, requires the feds to prove that E-Verify is 99 percent accurate before state businesses are allowed to use it. In response, the federal government hit the state with a lawsuit. "The state of Illinois has now made it illegal to comply with federal law," Michael Chertoff, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told the Chicago Tribune.

While the pushback against Illinois and New York is encouraging to the tough-on-immigration crowd, what's not happening is even more heartening. Seven states granted in-state tuition to the undocumented community from 2001 to 2003, but only one state has done so in the past two years. The push to expand drivers' license access had stalled until Spitzer revived it. "Blagojevich and Spitzer are anomalies here," says Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that is pushing for reduced immigration, "but New York and Illinois are two really big states."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |