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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

Downside of Albany's driver's license debate

A pedestrian walks by the New York State

A pedestrian walks by the New York State Capitol building in Albany. Credit: Bloomberg/Victor J. Blue

The Democrat-controlled State Legislature soon could pass a bill that would weaken state laws to allow persons living in New York unlawfully to apply for and receive driver’s licenses.

It’s a bad idea.

Proponents of the legislation, which has been kicking around since the mid-2000s, correctly note that some of these residents drive anyway, so wouldn’t it better if they were licensed and insured. Others argue that denying licenses to immigrants here illegally makes life more difficult for them. It does.

But both arguments are specious: The first suggests we change a law because non-citizens are breaking it; the second propounds that we abandon security and reason out of guilt and big-heartedness. That may be an admirable instinct, but common sense has to prevail — the easier and more penalty-free we make living here unlawfully the more illegal immigration we’ll get and the more our immigration system will break down. None of us should want that.

True compassion demands a national immigration fix. One that offers some form of legal status to those who have lived here for whatever period of time or under whatever circumstance Congress eventually decides. Then, and only then, should we issue licenses to this overwhelmingly peaceable population because the principle issue at stake isn’t illegal immigration — it’s national security. For everyone.

How quickly license advocates forget — or ignore — the findings and recommendations of The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission. It called for a single national standard for state-issued driver’s licenses after studying how the 19 terrorists who carried out the attacks exploited lax state driver's license laws to obtain dozens of licenses in the weeks preceding the attacks.

Those licenses allowed the al-Qaida terrorists to rent apartments, attend flight school training, receive international money wire transfers and, ultimately, board the planes that day. But even more than that, the driver’s licenses let them blend in here almost totally unnoticed. The licenses acted, as they still do, as default national ID cards — a critically important tool for those looking to escape attention.

I worked for two 9/11 family organizations following the attacks to address this expressly identified homeland security breach. Should have been a slam-dunk — right?

I was dumbstruck by the blowback. It came from organizations including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Latino advocacy group The National Council of La Raza and dozens of liberal affiliate organizations such as the powerful union, SEIU. I attended government hearings in New York and nationally with the parents and siblings of 9/11 victims, and privately boiled with rage as they were outrageously shouted down as racists by professionalized demonstrators wherever the family members testified.

It got worse. The transnational MS13-gang got involved, credibly threatening the children of one of these not-for-profit organization’s board members. Videos of their kids were mailed to them. The FBI got involved. It was bad.

The 9/11 groups persisted, though, and in 2005 the federal Real ID Act was made law, establishing minimum national standards for state-issued driver’s licenses, which includes biometric identifiers and a cross check against the Social Security database, among other things — something New York did on its own as a security measure under Gov. George E. Pataki. The New York measure is about to be foolishly undone now in the false name of “justice.” In other words, Democratic legislators don’t want to be called racists.

Real ID is a critically important national security reform that addresses a key pre-9/11 public safety loophole. Beginning in October 2020, driver’s licenses without the Real ID identifier will no longer be accepted as identification to board flights. But it’s not enough. Regular driver’s licenses, like the one’s New York will continue to distribute, will still be accepted as day-to-day government identification. How can we issue them in good faith to people whose backgrounds we simply cannot know? As much as we may want to, it’s totally irresponsible.

There aren’t enough Republicans in the State Legislature to stop this reckless weakening of our licensing laws. Brave Democrats must step forward now.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.