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Globe Editorial

Not an answer on immigration

TUESDAY'S DEBATE among the Democratic candidates for president thrust a touchy issue into the national debate: Should illegal immigrants be issued driver's licenses?

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer seemed to be taking a bold stand when he said his state would give licenses to undocumented immigrants. But then Spitzer talked with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. And now it looks as if New York will settle for an unwieldy system of tiered licenses.

Undocumented immigrants should be licensed, so that authorities know who they are and that they can drive safely. But New York's proposal is unlikely to provide that security. Faced with federal inaction on immigration reform and federal pressure from Chertoff, New York has Scotch-taped together a plan to issue three kinds of licenses.

One license, open to US citizens and permanent residents, would qualify drivers and serve as federally approved identification that could be used to board airplanes. It's meant to comply with the national REAL ID law, which requires states to develop highly secure IDs. But REAL ID is a troubled law that could cost billions to implement and doesn't adequately address privacy concerns. New York should have waited before complying, given bills in Congress to modify the REAL ID law.

The second category, under Spitzer's plan, would be an enhanced, REAL ID-compliant license. This new document could be used in place of a passport to cross into Canada.

The third license - the only kind available to undocumented immigrants - would cost less and would only work as legal identification in New York. Spitzer says legal residents could also get one if they want to avoid paying the higher fees for the other licenses.

The nagging issue is how many US citizens or legal immigrants would bother with the third type of license, which will likely be stigmatized as being for illegals. Native-born drivers with Hispanic or Arabic surnames would risk unwarranted suspicion by obtaining such a license. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants who had it would be carrying a red flag in their wallets.

Other states are experimenting, too. Jeb Bush, Florida's former Republican governor, supported a bill to license undocumented drivers. Utah, Hawaii, and New Mexico are among a handful of states that do grant some form of licenses to illegals. And Illinois and Tennessee are considering bills to grant these drivers certificates.

But state action will never suffice. The federal government has to craft a policy that creates more paths to legalization so that the formerly undocumented can get licenses.

Spitzer's well-intended plan ultimately sets a bad example. Massachusetts and other states should shun it as they try to compensate for federal inaction.

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