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N.Y. governor abandons driver's licenses for illegal immigrants

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Rivals criticize Clinton for changing stance
  • Sen. Hillary Clinton says she will not support licenses for illegal immigrants
  • N.Y. governor describes "polarized" public opinion on immigration
  • Gov. Eliot Spitzer says federal government "has lost control of its borders"
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer said Wednesday he is giving up his proposal to grant driver's licenses to undocumented workers, a plan he said would "improve the safety and security of the people of my state."

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer says Wednesday in Washington that opposition to his plan doomed it.

Spitzer said he was giving up because he had concluded that "New York state cannot successfully address this problem on its own."

He said he wanted to act because of the failure of the federal government to deal with immigration policy and the impact that failure was having on New York.

"I would suggest to you what everyone already knows, " Spitzer said. "The federal government has lost control of its borders. It has allowed millions of undocumented workers to enter our country and now has no solution to deal with them."

The effect was about 1 million undocumented workers in New York state, "many of whom are driving without licenses," said Spitzer, surrounded at a news conference by members of his state's congressional delegation. Video Watch Spitzer explain why he's withdrawing the proposal »

Spitzer said licensing workers who did not have Social Security numbers, which New York had done in the past, would have aided law enforcement and would have made the state's streets safer and more secure.

However, Spitzer acknowledged that "you don't need a stethoscope to hear the heartbeat of the public," saying he had concluded that opposition to his plan would have doomed it.

"You have polarization on this issue that has defied resolution," he said. Watch what a hornet's nest the proposal stirred up Video

Spitzer put forward his proposal in September, saying it would bring New York's estimated 1 million illegal immigrants "out of the shadows."

In October, the governor said there would be three tiers of licenses, ranging from a license restricting travel, a document called Real ID for legal residents and a stricter one that would allow people to travel into Canada.

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-New York, on Wednesday thanked Spitzer for making the effort to bring about change, noting that undocumented workers "are part of the economy, they are part of what America's supposed to be."

"There is no question that we lack the leadership on the national level to change the tone," Rangel said. "And that is the reason why leaders all over the country -- mayors and governors -- are trying so desperately hard to deal locally with a problem that is basically a national problem."

One influential member of New York's congressional delegation missing from the briefing was Sen. Hillary Clinton, considered the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. A spokesman from her office said she couldn't attend the news conference because of a scheduling conflict.

As the plan became a topic of national discussion, critics accused her of failing to take a definitive stance on the issue. In a debate last week, Clinton said Spitzer's plan "makes a lot of sense" but stopped short of endorsing it.

On Wednesday, Clinton issued a written statement supporting Spitzer's decision to withdraw the proposal.

"His difficult job is made that much harder by the failure of the Congress and the White House to pass comprehensive immigration reform," Clinton said.

"As president, I will not support driver's licenses for undocumented people and will press for comprehensive immigration reform that deals with all of the issues around illegal immigration, including border security and fixing our broken system."

Clinton's rivals quickly pounced on her statement.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, called her action "flip-flopping cubed," and Bill Burton, a spokesman for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, also sharply criticized Clinton for switching her views on the issue.

"When it takes two weeks and six different positions to answer one question on immigration, it's easier to understand why the Clinton campaign would rather plant their questions than answer them," Burton said.

Seventy-six percent of Americans oppose giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, according to a poll conducted in October for CNN by the Opinion Research Corp.

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Members of the New York State Sheriffs' Association voted in October to oppose Spitzer's proposal.

"I believe this is just a fundamental issue of right and wrong," said Rep. Tom Latham, an Iowa Republican against Spitzer's plan. "And to give people official recognition when they come in and break the law in their first act in this country is simply wrong." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Alexis Ginsberg contributed to this report.

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