Illegal immigrants who try to apply for driver's licenses in Erie and Niagara counties will be subject to arrest -- and deportation -- under a plan being developed by the two county clerks and law enforcement officials.
The move is the latest -- and potentially most serious -- challenge to Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's new policy to permit illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses if they possess a valid foreign passport and other identification.
"I'm being asked to look aside to something that's illegal, and I'm not going to do that," Niagara County Clerk Wayne Jagow said Wednesday.
Jagow and Erie County Clerk Kathleen C. Hochul have been in discussions with local police officials to determine what procedures will be used -- and whether federal or local law enforcement agencies will be notified -- if an illegal immigrant seeks to apply for a driver's license.
The effect, the two county clerks said, will be to discourage such individuals from seeking licenses in the two jurisdictions.
The decision is a clear repudiation of Spitzer's policy and undermines what the governor said is a program that will make the roads safer by encouraging illegal immigrants already on the roads to get trained and licensed and, presumably, insured. Critics, though, say the policy is a risk to security and serves as the state sanctioning illegal immigration.
"We didn't ask to be put in this situation, but this is the proper recourse," said Hochul, a Democrat who was appointed to her post earlier this year by Spitzer after her predecessor, David Swarts, was named commissioner of motor vehicles.
Swarts and Spitzer were sued this week by the Rensselaer County clerk, Frank Merola, who is seeking to block the policy from being implemented in December. Hochul is considering joining the lawsuit.
The Spitzer administration sharply criticized the decision by the two Western New York county clerks.
"It would be dangerous for local authorities to self-deputize themselves as [immigration] agents. It would only serve to continue to drive people into the shadows, spread fear and do nothing to improve the safety and security of New Yorkers," said Spitzer spokeswoman Jennifer Givner.
She said the administration will work with the clerks "and believes this issue can be worked out." She did not say how.
Twenty county clerks across New York, including in Chautauqua, Allegany and Genesee counties, say they will not implement the policy. Most county clerk offices run Department of Motor Vehicles offices for the state.
But Hochul and Jagow, a Republican, say they will carry out the governor's policy because they are agents of the state government and believe they have no choice. In response, though, both said they also take an oath to the U.S. Constitution, and so, in the words of Jagow, can't "turn a blind eye" when somebody in the country illegally comes into their office for a driver's license.
Jagow said he has been working with the Niagara County district attorney's office and law enforcement agencies on a plan to coordinate how clerks will notify police when an illegal immigrant applies for a license. Hochul said she has been in touch with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Erie County Sheriff's Office, and all have pledged cooperation.
Jagow likened his response to an incident that happened recently in which a person wanted on an outstanding warrant applied for a driver's license. Local police were called when a clerk, who is also a part-time town police officer, recognized the individual.
"Even though I have to be an agent of the [DMV] commissioner, it doesn't mean I'm going to have blinders on and not look at something that is illegal and not report it," Jagow said.
"Illegal is illegal," he added.
Hochul said giving illegal immigrants a license "gives them cover" in this country by providing them a valuable form of identification. She said her plan to both permit the Spitzer program to be implemented, yet have illegal immigrants arrested if they apply in one of her offices, covers the "dual responsibility" she has to carry out both state and federal laws.
"It will be a deterrent, and that's what I'm looking for," Hochul said of the chilling effect it will have on license applications by illegal immigrants.
Meanwhile, Bill O'Loughlin, the Republican candidate for Erie County clerk, said Wednesday he will hire a lawyer to commence legal action to stop Spitzer's plan and to halt the DMV from getting the scanners required for processing driver's licenses for illegal aliens. O'Loughlin is opposing Hochul in the clerk's race.
"We will definitely respond to it," Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard said of requests by clerks to respond to a possible illegal immigrant applying for a license. He said that he has talked to Hochul and that his officers would be available if called.
Howard added that he believes the new policy will hamper security efforts. He does not buy Spitzer's argument that the plan will make the roads safer.
"The New York State DMV already revokes licenses for people who don't go to court, if they don't pay fines and for parents who don't pay child support. So, it's ludicrous that we'd give licenses to people who aren't in the country legally," Howard said.
County clerks have also raised concerns that voter registration fraud could increase, and they note that a driver's license is the form of identification shown for pistol permits and that the driver's license rolls are used to compile jury pools.
Spitzer says up to one million illegal immigrants are already living in New York, and many drive on its roads. He says his plan will cut insurance costs by $120 million by reducing accidents by people without insurance. And he said new security measures being implemented will make the New York license more secure and provide a means for the state to keep better track of its residents -- whether in the country legally or illegally.