New York's driver's license deal with the federal government is likely to resolve concerns about a passport requirement at the Canadian border, but the state still could become a sanctuary for illegal aliens, thanks to Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's insistence on allowing them to obtain licenses, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds said this week.
In an interview, Reynolds -- one of the first and most vociferous critics of Spitzer's original plan to give driver's licenses to illegal aliens -- offered a mixed view of the agreement that Spitzer and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced last week.
As a longtime supporter of the federal "Real ID" program aimed at allowing states to develop secure driver's licenses suitable for federal identification purposes, the Clarence Republican said he is happy the agreement will bring that driver's license to New York.
He said he was also happy the state will be able to offer a driver's license that complies with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which otherwise would have required passports at the Canadian border.
"This is a reasonable approach for getting American citizens across the border without having to buy a passport," Reynolds said.
However, Reynolds said, he was disappointed that Spitzer continues to insist on offering a driver's license of some kind to illegal immigrants.
"I do not support in any condition that New York has a recognized, bona fide program for giving licenses to illegal immigrants," Reynolds said. "If you do that, New York becomes a de facto sanctuary" for undocumented aliens.
Reynolds said Spitzer and Chertoff both talked with him about the agreement last Friday, the day before it was announced.
In general, the deal "protects the genuineness of what a driver's license otherwise is -- the highest form of ID that many people have," Reynolds said.
Without the bulk of the population getting the enhanced driver's license, "we could have had 500,000 to 1 million people who are here illegally trying to get into the pathway of voting" through the state's Motor Voter Program, he said.
In addition, Reynolds noted that under Spitzer's original proposal, there would have been nothing on the license given to illegal immigrants indicating that it was invalid for federal ID purposes, thereby posing what he described as a grave security threat in transportation and at federal facilities.
Under the agreement, however, illegal immigrants will get licenses that specify that they are invalid for federal ID purposes. Even a license with those words on it "still poses a security challenge for us," Reynolds said.
The congressman said that he wishes Spitzer had not insisted on allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses but added that there is nothing in federal law prohibiting a state from doing so.
Reynolds raised concerns about driver's licenses to illegal immigrants in a letter to the governor June 26, making the congressman one of the first officials in the state to stand up against the idea.
Spitzer replied with what appeared to be a five-sentence form letter, which said: "Thank you for contacting me and for taking the time to share your concerns about a secure driver's license program."
Meanwhile, a local activist group spoke out Thursday, saying that the debate over issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants has turned into an election issue fueling "bigotry" and "hate."
The Buffalo chapter of International Action Center organized a demonstration Thursday afternoon in front of the Erie County Auto Bureau on Broadway. Five people showed up to picket.
Immigrants are not terrorists or criminals, and are no different from the generations before them, said Ellie Dorritie, a spokeswoman for the local group.
"The use of the term 'illegal' is a weapon to curry fear and hatred," Dorritie said. "It's used to criminalize people who come here in order to make the lives of themselves and their families better -- just like our ancestors did."
News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report.