The Bush administration and New York cut a deal Saturday to create a new generation of super-secure driver's licenses for U.S. citizens, but also allow illegal immigrants to get a version.
New York is the fourth state to reach an agreement on federally approved secure licenses, after Arizona, Vermont and Washington. The issue is pressing for border states, where new and tighter rules are soon to go into effect for crossings.
The New York deal comes about one month after Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced a plan whereby illegal immigrants with a valid foreign passport could obtain a license.
Saturday's agreement with the Homeland Security Department will create a three-tier license system in New York. It is the largest state to sign on so far to the government's post-Sept. 11 effort to make identification cards more secure.
Spitzer, who has faced much criticism on the issue, said the deal means New York "will usher in the most secure licensing system in the nation."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he was not happy that New York intended to issue IDs to illegal immigrants. But he said there was nothing he could do to stop it.
"I don't endorse giving licenses to people who are not here legally, but federal law does allow states to make that choice," Chertoff said.
The governor made clear he is going forward with his plan allowing licenses for illegal immigrants. But advocates on both sides of the debate said Spitzer had caved to pressure by adopting the administration's stance on tighter security standards for most driver's licenses.
GOP Rep. Thomas Reynolds, who represents the Buffalo suburbs, said he was glad Washington had heeded his concerns about border identification. But he said he feared that Spitzer "is taking this state down a risky path" by giving any kind of license to illegal immigrants.
Under the compromise, New York will produce an "enhanced driver's license" that will be as secure as a passport. It is intended for people who soon will need to meet such ID requirements, even for a short drive to Canada.
A second version of the license will meet new federal standards of the Real ID Act. That law is designed to make it much harder for illegal immigrants or would-be terrorists to obtain licenses.
A third type of license will be available to undocumented immigrants. Spitzer has said this ID will make the state more secure by bringing those people "out of the shadows" and into American society, and will lower auto insurance rates.
Those licenses will be clearly marked to show they are not valid federal ID. Officials, however, would not say whether that meant local law enforcement could use such a license as probable cause to detain someone they suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.
"Besides being a massive defeat for the governor, I can't imagine many — if any — illegal immigrants coming forward to get the driver's licenses, because they'd basically be labeled as illegal," said New York Rep. Peter King, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee.
New York has between 500,000 and 1 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom are driving without a license and car insurance or with fake driver's licenses, Spitzer said in September when he announced his executive order.
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