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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

New York's governor, Eliot Spitzer, has dropped his plan to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants after a swirl of controversy. In September, he proposed offering driver's licenses to get illegal immigrants out of the shadows. When that proved controversial, he offered a three-tier system with different categories of licenses. Illegal immigrants would have a license, but it wouldn't be valid as ID for air travel or for crossing borders. But now, Governor Spitzer has abandoned that plan too. And he joins us from New York to explain why.

Governor Spitzer, why have you backed down?

Governor ELIOT SPITZER (Democrat, New York): Well, I think it is a recognition that the public tolerance for this was such, and the impediments to our implementing either of the plans were such that there was practically no effective way to move forward. It is not because I have changed my perspective on the underlying merit of what we sought to do. I still believe, and I believe perhaps even more deeply, that we have a crisis in the context of our immigration policy.

One of the manifestations of that crisis is that we have a million undocumented individuals in New York state, who are a reality of our lives. And they're in our communities, and they work, and they - their kids are in school, and they go to our hospitals. And having them unable to get access to a driver's license is a major impediment both for us, in terms of knowing who they are, and for them, in terms of their capacity to participate.

BLOCK: This idea, as you well know, proved hugely unpopular among New York voters. Seventy percent of people opposed it. You had half of the county clerks around the state saying that they wouldn't carry out the new rule if it went into effect. Did you make a huge political miscalculation here?

Gov. SPITZER: Well, I don't - it will sound odd for me to say so, but that's not the prism through which I look at this issue. It is part of the larger complex of immigration policy issues we have to think about. It was, as you pointed out, not a popular position. I was hoping that there would be some hold in the middle for those who recognize that a million individuals in our state and 14 million around the nation cannot and should not be ignored, but there was no support for that. And it translated into almost an impossibility in terms of moving this forward and, frankly, also doing harm long-term to the cause that we are trying to pursue, which is an of element of security, fairness and decency.

BLOCK: You said today that it doesn't take a stethoscope to hear the pulse of New Yorkers on this topic. Do you think you should have had that stethoscope out a bit earlier?

Gov. SPITZER: Well, maybe the pulse is a little louder now than it was before we announced this, because the interesting thing is eight states do this. States as diverse as New Mexico, Washington, Maine, Maryland, the policy was supported by leading security experts. So you see a spectrum of people who, when they looked at this on the merits and said, does this make sense in a practical level, they had said yes. It was hard to envision what erupted after we proposed it. And indeed, for a few days, there was across-the-board support, until suddenly it transformed itself after the rhetoric became more evident.

BLOCK: There was and still is a potent argument out there that giving illegal immigrants driver's licenses would make the country less safe, that it could help criminals and terrorists get identification. Do you buy that in anyway?

Gov. SPITZER: No, I don't. Clearly, it's preferable to have them licensed, have names and faces in a database. The DMV database is the most frequently searched and sought-after database in the nation from a law enforcement perspective because of its comprehensive nature. Having a million people, in essence, live below the radar screen is not healthy at any level.

BLOCK: When Hillary Clinton was pressed on this question during the Democratic debate a few weeks ago, it seemed to trip her up and caused a lot of attention to that - to her answers. Were you getting pressure from within your own party, maybe from the Clinton campaign itself to roll this back?

Gov. SPITZER: No. I think that there was an increasing sense across the entire spectrum of elected officials that the constant debate was becoming counterproductive to a set of issues and values we all shared, which was meaningful progress in the context of immigration, which is why people are saying this refocuses the effort back to Washington. That is where resolution can and should emanate from because you can't do this on a state by state basis. Many other areas you can address on a state by state basis, but this one you can't.

BLOCK: You have said that the federal government has abdicated its responsibility on immigration and immigration reform. So what happens now, now that you've rolled back this idea for New York?

Gov. SPITZER: Well, unfortunately, we have the status quo ante. We're back to where we were before I made the proposal, which is that we have an absence of federal policy. We have poorer supporters. We have no meaningful legal framework for the 14 million people to become either citizens or legalize their status or to bring them into our civil society in a more formal way. And so we're left with a huge void. This is something that cannot continue. Washington must address it.

BLOCK: Governor Spitzer, good to talk with you. Thanks very much.

Gov. SPITZER: My pleasure. Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Governor Eliot Spitzer, Democrat of New York.

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