NEW YORK -- Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced yesterday that he was scrapping his plan to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, saying that overwhelming public opposition had destroyed the proposal's chances.
"It does not take a stethoscope to hear the pulse of New Yorkers on this topic," Spitzer said during a news conference in Washington, adding that "the legislative process and any number of mounting obstacles would have prevented us from moving forward."
Spitzer, a Democrat, proposed the initiative in September in an effort to improve safety in New York, home to more than 1 million undocumented immigrants -- many of whom are driving without licenses. But a fierce backlash contributed to a drop in the governor's first-year approval ratings and distracted from Spitzer's larger political agenda.
About 70 percent of New Yorkers opposed the driver's license plan, according to a recent poll. The issue seeped into the presidential campaign, when New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's Democratic rivals accused her of hedging her position on Spitzer's proposal during a debate in Philadelphia last month.
Spitzer argued that his licensing idea would have made it easier for law enforcement officials to keep roads safe. But critics said it would make it easier for terrorists to blend into the city and would encourage illegal immigrants to come to New York state.
Spitzer said yesterday that opponents equated undocumented dishwashers to Osama bin Laden, and that newspapers made the driver's license proposal sound like "a passport to terror and a license to kill."
"In New York, forces quickly mobilized to prey on the public's worst fears by turning what we believe is a practical security measure into a referendum on immigration," he said.
The license plan has been contested regularly on TV shows such as CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, which draws an audience of about 800,000 viewers. New York Republican state Sen. John J. Flanagan, who has appeared on Dobbs' program, said Spitzer had proposed the plan without discussion or debate. He said that offering licenses to illegal residents takes away from people who have gone through the steps to become naturalized citizens.
"It's like saying, 'Everything you did doesn't matter. Now we're giving privileges to people who don't want to do the same thing,'" Flanagan said.
The plan's failure is the latest setback in Spitzer's first year as governor, which has been tainted by political scandal.
Spitzer said he still supports allowing undocumented workers to drive legally, but the country's immigration problems are too difficult for New York to address on its own. Yesterday, he denounced the federal government for failing to enact a strong immigration policy and for losing control of its borders, leaving state and city officials with no solution to the arrival of so many illegal residents
"Fix the problem," Spitzer said, challenging the federal government, "so the states won't face the local impact."
Erika Hayasaki writes for the Los Angeles Times.