Hillary Clinton Takes Firm Stance On Driver's Licenses For The Undocumented After Slip-Up In 2008 Race

04/16/2015 07:00 am ET | Updated Apr 16, 2015
  • Elise Foley Immigration And Politics Reporter, Huffington Post

WASHINGTON -- Javier Sandoval, a 44-year-old resident of Santa Rosa, California, drives at least 15 miles per day to get to his work as a day laborer. Until this year, he was doing so without a driver's license -- not by choice, but because he couldn't get one.

Sandoval, like nearly 2.5 million other people in California, is undocumented. He was barred from obtaining a driver's license until this year, when the state opened up eligibility to those in the country without legal status. Sandoval took a written test -- he said he earned a near-perfect score -- and a driving test. On March 26, he received his license.

It's a small piece of identification. But it's changed his life immeasurably.

"I'm very, very glad that this is happening now," he said. "The people that are here, we don't drive for pleasure. We drive because we need to work."

Sandoval is one of many workers benefiting from evolving views over whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to receive driver's licenses. Ten states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have embraced the idea, concluding that the policy is economically sound, humane and better for law enforcement. Most of those laws were approved in 2013. That such progress has occurred with relatively little controversy is all the more remarkable when one considers how the debate began.

Eight years ago, it was the topic of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants that first tripped up the seemingly inevitable presidential candidacy of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). During an October 2007 debate in Philadelphia, Clinton was asked whether she supported the efforts of her home-state governor, Eliot Spitzer, to pass a bill authorizing those licenses. Spitzer was arguing that it would make the roads safer since undocumented immigrants with licenses would more likely to get insurance and cooperate with police.

But Clinton had fits with the question. She said the New York proposal "makes a lot of sense," before adding that she did not support it. Her Democratic primary opponents on the stage let her have it, accusing her of deliberate vagueness and of wanting to have it both ways on the issue.

Then-Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) interrupted her answer: "No, no, no. You said yes, you thought it made sense to do it." Dodd opposed driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who supported such licenses, quipped that he couldn't "tell whether she was for it or against it."

About two weeks later, Clinton had a settled answer. "As president, I will not support driver’s licenses for undocumented people," she said in a statement, adding that she would push for broader immigration reform.

But the damage was done. Clinton's opponents sensed a vulnerability and attacked her from there for being too calculating in her positions.

As she makes her second bid for the presidency, Clinton's position is far clearer and decidedly different. "Hillary supports state policies to provide driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants," a campaign spokesperson told The Huffington Post.

The driver's license issue is still politically fraught. Demographic changes that have made the Latino vote more important have helped shift the scales. But most Americans don't agree with the policy, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted this month. The survey found that 64 percent oppose driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, while 26 percent support the idea. Democrats are split, with 43 percent in favor and 46 percent against. Eighty-one percent of Republicans oppose allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.

Among Latinos, a slight majority of 52 percent favor driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, while 34 percent are opposed and 14 percent are not sure. Latinos typically rank immigration-related issues as more important than do American voters overall.

Where the policy has advanced, perhaps unsurprisingly, is in states with large Hispanic populations, including Colorado and California.

"I've seen a pretty big seismic shift in terms of attitudes towards immigrants," said Colorado state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri (D), who championed the driver's license law that went into effect last year.

It's not just the pressure of Hispanic voters that has moved these policies forward. Law enforcement officers have urged politicians to approve driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. They and others recognize that licenses improve access to insurance and make people more comfortable reporting accidents and other issues to police, according to Tanya Broder, who has tracked driver's license access in her work for the National Immigration Law Center.

"It really came down to a common-sense public safety rationale," Broder said. "Just making sure that all of the drivers on the roads are trained, tested, licensed, insured and accountable for their driving histories and driving records seemed to make sense from a public safety perspective."

There are less obvious benefits, too. California has seen a significant increase in registered organ donors this year, which officials have attributed to the new driver's license law.

Opponents of the laws, however, are skeptical about how much good they do and critical of the notion that people in the country illegally should be allowed state-authorized benefits. Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, questioned why supporters of driver's licenses consider it a positive that licenses help undocumented immigrants get to work, since undocumented immigrants aren't legally authorized to hold jobs. He said the licenses could aid people in establishing false identities.

"It makes it easier for people to get away with violating the law," Mehlman said.

Even in states that permit driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, there are still plenty of lawmakers who disagree with the policy. The Republican-led New Mexico House of Representatives voted in February to repeal the 2003 law authorizing the licenses. That bill is likely to die in the Democrat-controlled state Senate.

Colorado Republicans, meanwhile, slashed funding for the program earlier this year, forcing all but one of the original five offices that were distributing the licenses to shut down. At the end of March, the state Senate approved additional funding, although only for three offices.

Estrella Ruiz, who volunteers with the Hispanic Affairs Project in Grand Junction, Colorado, said that the collective effect of Republican efforts is that undocumented immigrants have to endure longer wait times to get their license. It was already an lengthy process, beginning with the difficulties of setting up an appointment, she said.

"You had to have lots of patience to get through," Ruiz said. "Sometimes it would take up to 20 minutes of refreshing, refreshing, refreshing the page so you wouldn't lose the appointment."

Illinois, which began offering driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants in 2013, has also had problems with long wait times, said Fred Tsao, policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

One place where the driver's license policy didn't progress at all was Clinton's home state of New York. In 2007, then-Gov. Spitzer dropped his efforts to move the bill, citing widespread public opposition. Advocates there are still fighting to get lawmakers to reverse course.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted April 10-12 among U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the poll's methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov's reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed reporting.

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