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Commentary: Foes run over sensible N.Y. license plan

  • Story Highlights
  • Extreme voices killed New York plan for driver's licenses for illegal immigrants
  • Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal a common-sense plan, Ruben Navarrette Jr. says
  • Racism reared head in a food fight of a debate, Navarrette says
  • Columnist: Naysayers have let fear blind them to what's already happening
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Score one for the knee-jerk naysayers. You know the type: those who find it easier to criticize proposed solutions to tough problems than to propose solutions of their own, which then could be criticized.

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Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Two Americas are at odds on immigration -- realists and folks in a state of denial.

Faced with the problem of what to do with thousands of illegal immigrants who drive on state roadways every day to go to work for people who insist with a straight face that they want nothing to do with illegal immigrants, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed a controversial, yet terribly sensible, plan to give the undocumented a state-issued driver's license that would be easily discernible from licenses carried by U.S. citizens and legal residents.

The plan hit roadblocks with the extremes, on the right and the left -- which is always a good sign. But the criticism kept mounting. And now Spitzer has put the brakes on the plan after a brief but intense debate.

Correction. It wasn't really a debate. It was the rhetorical equivalent of a food fight in which pragmatism and common sense took a back seat to name-calling, fear-mongering and misrepresentation of fact -- with a dash of racism.

Yes, racism. That word is sometimes overused in the immigration debate. And yet the concept isn't exactly obsolete. Sometimes the sheet fits.

In this case, racism is the word that Spitzer used to describe some of the more toxic feedback his office received from angry constituents and onlookers from around the country after the driver's license plan was pilloried by everyone from presidential candidates to cable talk-show hosts.

Here's the problem. The naysayers once again let their fear of what could happen blind them to the fact that, well, it already has happened.

When lawmakers proposed a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, the naysayers reflexively called it "amnesty" -- which is, in essence, what we have now.

When lawmakers proposed offering that path to young people who pursue higher education, the naysayers called it -- wait for it -- "amnesty" -- and imagined a scenario where illegal immigrants would attend U.S. colleges and universities, which is what happens now.

And when a handful of governors, including Spitzer, proposed giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, the naysayers objected lest we end up with a situation where motorists share the highways with illegal immigrants, which is what happens now.

These folks have a simple approach to problems: Ignore them, and they'll go away. Or better yet, portray those who come up with solutions as the problem. That's the game that GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was playing recently when he told CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck that he would punish states that give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

When it comes to the immigration issue, we really are two Americas. There are those who sometimes have to make unpleasant choices because they live in states that are home to illegal immigrants, and then there are those who are just as comfortable living in a state of denial.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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