October 19, 2007

Local Actions Protect Rights

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The controversial issue of immigration, currently at the forefront of the national discourse, was also at the center of local Ithaca politics Monday night when the Town Board voted to endorse Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s (D) plan to provide undocumented immigrants with driver’s licenses. This action is one of the many steps Ithaca has taken in recent months regarding immigrant rights.
On Sept. 21, Spitzer announced the policy change would enable undocumented immigrants to apply for state licenses without providing Social Security numbers. The reform would instead permit foreign passports as valid forms of identification and therefore allow undocumented immigrants to receive licenses. The controversial plan will make New York the eighth state in the nation to have such a policy.
Herb Engman, recently elected Town of Ithaca Supervisor and a senior extension associate in the department of human development, strongly supported Spitzer’s plan. Engman stated that the Board felt that from an ethical point of view, it was their responsibility to speak up on the issue.
“Immigrants are doing a lot of hard work but in return are being blamed for the ills of society. They are simply coming here to work,” Engman said. According to Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Farmworker Program, more than two-thirds of farm workers in New York are undocumented immigrants. Dudley cited her own research, which found that the critical need of farm workers who live in rural areas is transportation.
“Most farm workers live in rural areas that lack public transportation,” Dudley said. “A driver’s license is of critical value to farm workers and is necessary in order to engage in local commerce.”
In rural areas, Dudley acknowledged, residents must drive to get to schools, banks, libraries and stores.
According to the Spitzer Administration, the proposed plan will enable the government to better monitor undocumented populations and will therefore benefit the nation’s security and anti-terrorism efforts.
In addition, the Spitzer administration claimed that the revised policy will increase public safety and lower insurance rates for all drivers, due to an increase in drivers that are both licensed and insure. New York’s Department of Motor Vehicles has estimated that there are tens of thousands of unlicensed and uninsured drivers that contribute to a large number of accidents on the road, which increases insurance rates.
According to Dudley, enabling undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses would be a positive thing because it would ensure that such individuals are driving safely and are familiar with the state’s driving laws.
“I can’t understand why people want to be out on the road with people that do not have a license and are not trained drivers,” said Engman.
Ahmed Salem ’08, chairman of the Cornell College Republicans, opposes Spitzer’s reform, arguing that undocumented immigration is a matter of breaking the law.
“The governor of this state feels it is OK to throw the fact that people should follow the law to the wind and make us equal in benefits. The argument that this will allow New York to keep track of undocumented workers is a misguided one,” Salem said. “This mechanism, in my opinion, is a way to get around the laws of the United States for political gains.”
Other opponents of Spitzer’s policy argue that the policy is dangerous, claiming that it poses a threat to homeland security. Some fear that granting undocumented immigrants identification would make such individuals indistinguishable from citizens, therefore complicating efforts to enforce security, specifically in airports.
Engman said it is outrageous to make the connection between immigrants and terrorism.
“Immigrants are caught in public policy gridlock and are being used as scapegoats in a political game,” he said.
“We need to say to state and federal representatives that these are our opinions.”
The Town Board’s vote was not Ithaca’s first attempt to expand and protect immigrant rights.
On April 4, 2007, the Ithaca Common Council passed, in a unanimous vote, the Statement on Immigration Enforcement. The resolution encouraged the Ithaca Police Department to “treat the enforcement of federal immigration laws as a function of federal law enforcement agencies.” The resolution sought to delegate the enforcement of immigration policy to federal authorities and stated that the IPD is to refrain from such enforcement unless there is suspicion of criminal activity.
When asked about the success of the resolution, Alderperson Maria Coles (D-1st Ward) said, “There is no reason to believe that the City police have not followed [the guidelines of the resolution.] Enforcing immigration laws is what federal officials do, not local police departments.”
Though Dudley claimed that there is not a large population of undocumented immigrants residing in the City of Ithaca for the resolution to have an effect on, she asserted that the resolution “does set a good precedent for other cities to look at.”