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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The issue of illegal immigration set off some sparks at last night's Democratic presidential debate. Senators Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd sparred over a plan in New York to offer driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): What are we going to do with all these illegal immigrants who are driving on the road?

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): Well, that's a legitimate issue, but driver's license goes too far, in my view.

Sen. CLINTON: Well, you may say that, but what is the identification if somebody runs into you today who is an undocumented worker…

Sen. DODD: There's ways of dealing with that.

Sen. CLINTON: Well, but…

Sen. DODD: This is a privilege, not a right.

Sen. CLINTON: Well, what Governor Spitzer…

BLOCK: New York Governor Eliot Spitzer first proposed offering the licenses last month.

He, too, has been under attack ever since, as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Governor Spitzer says tens of thousands of unlicensed illegal immigrant drivers means more accidents, more hit and runs and higher insurance rates. He says all that and more could be helped by bringing the undocumented out of the shadows with valid driver's licenses.

His plan drew praise from advocates like Norman Eng of the New York Immigration Coalition.

Mr. NORMAN ENG (Executive Director, New York Immigration Coalition): We thought that our roads we're going to be safer because more drivers we're going to be tested, licensed and insured. It was good for law enforcement because more people would be in the DMD database, which law enforcement uses all the time in order to track a criminal.

LUDDEN: Praise also came from some national security experts, like former White House counterterrorism czar, Richard Clarke. But the idea didn't go over so well with New York's Republicans.

State Senator Tom Libous chairs the Transportation Committee and helped pass a bill aimed at blocking the new rule.

State Senator TOM LIBOUS (Republican, New York; Chairman, Transportation Committee): Well, illegal means illegal and it's wrong. And the real issue we have here in New York is that, you know, just providing a privilege to illegal aliens is the wrong thing to do.

LUDDEN: New York County clerks, who often act as local DMV officers, also revolted. Nearly half insisted they wouldn't carry out the new rule, questioning its legality and worrying it would encourage more illegal immigrants to move to the state. Polls showed 72 percent of New Yorkers opposed driver's licenses for the undocumented.

Last week, Governor Spitzer backed down. He announced a new three-tiered program in which illegal immigrants would still get driver's licenses, but they wouldn't be valid for air travel or entering federal buildings. Critics vowed to continue fighting it.

A handful of other states have laws similar to what Governor Spitzer's proposing. But the trend since the 9/11 terror attacks has been to deny licenses to the undocumented. Today, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he adamantly opposes such licenses.

In last night's debate, Democratic candidate Barack Obama said he supported them. And Senator Clinton managed to get into a tussle on the issue without actually making her position clear.

In any case, Simon Rosenberg of the progressive think tank NDN says it's another sign of the importance of the larger immigration issue.

Mr. SIMON ROSENBERG (President, New Democrat Network): And I do think that there is going to be a big debate because every Democratic presidential candidate running today is for what we call comprehensive immigration reform. Every Republican candidate, except for John McCain, is against it.

LUDDEN: While the Republican contenders have aggressively touted their position on immigration on the campaign stump, Democratic candidates have seem to be trying to avoid the issue if possible. That may become harder to do.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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