(CBS) This story was written by CBSNews.com political reporter Brian Montopoli.
The question of whether or not illegal immigrants should have access to driver's licenses has stayed under the radar for most of the 2008 presidential campaign.
But that changed Tuesday night, when Sen. Hillary Clinton
made vague comments at a Democratic presidential debate about whether or not she supports New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer's driver’s license proposal. Clinton's rivals quickly criticized her for what they characterized as a refusal to take a position on the issue.
Spitzer's revised plan calls for a system in which three licenses will be available to New York residents. One type of license, which would be available to legal residents, would conform to the Real ID Act of 2005, a controversial federal standard designed to tighten homeland security by making it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get state driver's licenses. This license would be sufficient identification for residents who want to fly domestically. Critics, among them the ACLU, contend that compliance with the Act "would turn state driver's licenses into a national ID card." Fourteen states have refused to comply over potential cost and privacy implications.
A second type of license would allow residents to cross the border between Canada and the United States without a passport. The third, which would be available to illegal immigrants, would be used solely for driving and identification, and would allow those who hold it to get auto insurance.
After the debate, the Clinton campaign issued a statement on the Spitzer plan, which did not put to rest questions about her position on it.
"Senator Clinton supports governors like Governor Spitzer who believe they need such a measure to deal with the crisis caused by this administration's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform," the statement said. "As President, her goal will be to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would make this unnecessary."
A number of states have implemented plans that allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses. Critics charge that such policies create a security risk and encourage illegal immigrants to come to America.
"The public feels illegal aliens should receive no benefits from the government," William Gheen of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC said in an interview with CBS News. "Licenses, in state tuition, anything short of emergency medical care will only attract more illegal aliens."
But supporters of such legislation say it's a mistake not to document illegal immigrants.
"This is a really bad issue to have a substantive disagreement on," said Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University law school. "Every expert out there thinks it's a good idea to give driver's licenses to the undocumented."
Chishti said it is important to have data on everyone in the country, undocumented or otherwise, for security reasons. "The pragmatic response is to have them in a database," he said.
Spitzer's compromise plan, worked out in concert with the Department of Homeland Security after an earlier plan to grant a single type of license to both legal residents and illegal immigrants met with opposition, has been criticized from both sides.
The Spitzer plan "is potentially the worst of all possibilities," said Chishti. "He's telling the undocumented 'we're going to give you a driver's license, but it will clearly say this is not for federal purposes. It will indicate to anyone who looks at it that you are not here legally.'" Chishti said illegal immigrants "will be very, very reticent" to apply for such a document.
A debate over this issue arose four years ago in the state of California, when then-Governor Grey Davis signed legislation allowing illegal immigrants to get licenses. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned on his opposition to the legislation, and after Davis was recalled, and Schwarzenegger became governor, it was repealed.
Five of Clinton's six opponents at the Democratic debate say they support states issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. After Clinton seemed to back Spitzer's proposal, Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd
, who does not support the policy, said the "idea that we're going to extend this privilege here of a driver's license, I think, is troublesome."
Clinton responded that "I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Gov. Spitzer is trying to do it." The comment prompted John Edwards
to charge that "Sen. Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes." Sen. Barack Obama
said he "was confused on Sen. Clinton's answer" and "can't tell whether she was for it or against it."
The Republican presidential hopefuls, most of whom have taken a hard line on illegal immigration, also criticized Clinton over the comments. A spokesman for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney
characterized the former first lady as being "dismissive of efforts to enforce our nation's immigration laws and entirely unwilling to offer a straight answer to a very direct question."
Illegal immigration can be a tough issue for presidential candidates from both parties. Many Republican primary voters favor tightening the U.S. borders, and the GOP hopefuls have tried to look tough on the question of giving rights to undocumented residents. Democrats have largely backed giving legal status to undocumented workers, but have sometimes differed on issues of enforcement. Both parties are wary of alienating Latino voters, who represent a sizable and rapidly growing voting bloc.
"All the questions you have seen in the [Democratic] debate are dealing with enforcement," said Chishti. "And that's where you are beginning to see fudging."