ALBANY — Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer’s new policy that permits illegal immigrants to obtain New York State driver’s licenses is “an absurd” decision that will provide a new gateway for terrorists, a member of the federal commission that investigated the 2001 World Trade Center attacks warns.
“It’s a perfect formula for al-Qaida. They won’t be able to resist it. They will be able to come to New York,” said John Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy who served on the 9/11 Commission that warned of the nation’s vulnerabilities to terrorist strikes.
Lehman joins a growing number of critics of the new Spitzer policy, including two mayors involved in the recovery of the 9/11 attacks — Rudy Giuliani and Michael R. Bloomberg — and an assortment of law enforcement officials, Republicans and Democrats.
In an interview Saturday with The Buffalo News, Lehman said the state is undermining the many efforts made to improve security in New York City since 2001.
“It is not logical,” he said of the Spitzer policy, adding: “As we know, New York is target number one.”
Spitzer’s plan “is going to make life easier for illegals,” especially terrorists, counterfeiters and others who will have easy access to a valuable piece of identification, Lehman said.
Lehman also said the policy will put New York at odds with a looming federal identification program recommended by his commission, which noted how valuable identification cards are for terrorists in moving cash and traveling.
“It’s going to become a magnet to lawbreakers because the surrounding states will adhere to the federal standards,” he said. “So, New York becomes a sanctuary for al-Qaida and all sorts of other people on the lam.”
When he announced his new policy, Spitzer said it would make roads safer, get more drivers insured, provide a better accounting of people living in the state and bolster the state’s security in a post-September 11 world.
But the new policy, set to take effect in December, also includes components that could dissuade undocumented immigrants from rushing to the program. For instance, federal immigration officials could subpoena the state’s license records to track down illegal aliens, state officials concede.
While the Spitzer administration touts an expected $120 million drop in insurance costs because more people will be covered by policies, the savings for legal residents will add up to about $15 annually on a $1,000 policy.
Moreover, because they lack Social Security numbers used in running credit checks, illegal aliens likely would be dissuaded from buying insurance because they would end up paying expensive premiums, insurance company executives said. Though more drivers would be insured under the Spitzer policy, it remains uncertain what the impact will be on reducing accidents, traffic safety experts say.
And in a state especially sensitive to terrorist attacks, the new policy is raising the eyebrows of federal agents who patrol the borders, district attorneys and other law enforcement officials.
While most illegal aliens end up leading productive lives, law enforcement officials say they worry the policy could make it easier for terrorists to get their hands on a valuable form of identification that is used to open bank accounts, board airplanes and gain access to some public buildings.
“We are a border county,” Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark said. “My first concern is: Are we at conflict with any federal statutes and are we somehow lessening the trust and confidence people have in the New York driver’s license, which, as we all know, when anybody asks you for ID, they ask for a driver’s license?”
Along the northern border, another district attorney is less contemplative.
Border and immigration officials from northern New York to Buffalo have expressed concerns about the new policy, said Derek Champagne, the Franklin County district attorney.
Police along the borders are able to search vehicles if they stop someone without a license, Champagne said, and that has led to major drug busts and breaking up illegal-alien smuggling rings.
“I don’t think any of us want to be in a situation where something horrific happens and they were able to gain access because of one of these licenses,” he said.
Officially, federal border and homeland security agencies are withholding judgment, for now.
The policy, though, is raising complaints among Border Patrol agents working on the front lines.
“We have strong feelings against any proposal that will provide illegal immigrants with enticements to enter a state and hide in plain sight,” said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents about 10,000 Border Patrol agents. “There’s no doubt this would hamper homeland security.”
Bonner predicted the policy would make New York State a sanctuary for undocumented aliens. In fact, New York Motor Vehicles Commissioner David Swarts last week said his agency is gearing up for an expected rush of applications by illegal immigrants. The agency, for instance, is hiring 20 additional driving-test workers.
“If you reward this kind of behavior, you can expect to see it repeated over and over again,” Bonner said.
He noted that, of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 2001, all but one had a driver’s license that gave them a form of ID to use as they planned their plot. Similarly, terrorists could get a New York driver’s license and use it to have “disastrous effects in other parts of the country,” he said.
The Spitzer administration says critics are ignoring that the state will bolster its anti-fraud efforts at DMV offices with new technologies to check identifications that they insist will make the New York license the nation’s most secure.
But the administration would not say if it ran the new policy in advance past federal homeland security officials.
At home, local officials are upset they had no input.
“We were caught flat-footed by all this, to be honest,” Clark said. He said the policy “was thrust on us without any dialogue, and that was disconcerting to everybody.”
Spitzer said critics ignore the reality that illegal immigrants are here — up to one million in New York — and are already driving. His policy envisions getting those people to take written and road tests to get licensed and then insured if they own a car. That, he says, will improve traffic safety.
But safety experts said they have no idea if the governor’s plan will actually cut the number of accidents.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, highly respected in the industry, has no position on the Spitzer policy, said spokesman Russ Rader, “because there’s no research to base an opinion on.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency; the American Automobile Association; and the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, all declined to comment about the effectiveness of the new policy for New York.
The Spitzer administration also says the plan will help all drivers by lowering insurance premiums. The more insured drivers, the fewer accidents involving drivers with no coverage. That cuts costs, said David Neustadt, an insurance department spokesman.
At Progressive Insurance, spokeswoman Leah Knapp said the only condition in New York for insurance eligibility is a driver’s license.
“The driver produces the license, we provide the quote. We will ask for a Social Security number when we provide a quote so that we can give the most accurate rate possible, but we will quote and provide coverage without it.
However, in those cases, the consumer might not get the absolute best rate we have to offer,” she said.