WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer on Wednesday dropped a plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants in his state because of overwhelming opposition to the proposal in an issue with repercussions in the U.S. presidential campaign.
Spitzer’s decision prompted Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to try to put criticism of her stance on the issue behind her before a Democratic debate on Thursday, shifting her position to being against driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
“I’ve concluded that New York state cannot conduct this program on its own,” Spitzer, a Democrat, said at a Capitol Hill news conference. “It does not take a stethoscope to hear the pulse of New Yorkers on this topic.”
Spitzer’s plan had sparked a national debate over the extension of certain privileges to illegal immigrants and haunted front-runner Clinton on the campaign trail.
Clinton, a New York senator, initially said the idea made a lot of sense but then equivocated and left her position vague during an October 30 Democratic debate in Philadelphia, prompting her Democratic and Republican rivals to accuse her of engaging in political double-talk.
After Spitzer’s decision, her campaign issued a statement saying she supported his move and made it clear she opposed granting licenses to illegal immigrants.
“As president, I will not support drivers’ licenses for undocumented people and will press for comprehensive immigration reform that deals with all of the issues around illegal immigration including border security and fixing our broken system,” Clinton said.
A rival Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, quickly ridiculed her move.
“When it takes two weeks and six different positions to answer one question on immigration, it’s easier to understand why the Clinton campaign would rather plant their questions than answer them,” Obama spokesman Bill Burton.
Spitzer said he had come to believe that the proposal eventually would be blocked either by legal challenges or by the New York legislature.
He said he still believed his plan would be the best way to secure the roads in a state with an estimated 1 million illegal immigrants, many of whom drive without licenses or insurance.
He also criticized the federal government for failing to resolve the problem and said divisive political rhetoric had won out over efforts to reach a practical solution.
“The federal government has lost control of its borders, has allowed millions of undocumented immigrants to enter our country and now has no solution to deal with it,” Spitzer said.
Efforts at a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws collapsed in the U.S. Congress amid a bitter debate on the future of an estimated 12 million immigrants in the United States, many of whom are Hispanic.
Republican presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor, and Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor, said Spitzer’s plan would have made it more difficult for the federal government to enforce immigration laws.
“It took long enough to convince him and other open-border Democrats like Senator Clinton that driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants was exactly the wrong approach to enforcement, but at least Governor Spitzer finally listened to the American people and common sense,” Romney said.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose name has been raised as a possible independent presidential candidate, praised Spitzer for attempting to deal with the problem and criticized Washington’s inaction.
Additional reporting by JoAnne Allen, editing by David Alexander and Eric Beech