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With a new television ad, a conservative group is trying to revive the debate over drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants, which flared up in the Democratic nomination race but has not been a major issue in the general election.
The ad debuted on Oct. 21, 2008, and is set to run in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and other swing states, according to scriptwriter and producer Rick Wilson.
"Millions of illegal aliens in the U.S.," begins the spot, paid for by an independent political action committee called the National Republican Trust. "Barack Obama's plan gives a driver's license to any illegal who wants one."
For good measure, the spot includes an image of 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta on a driver's license.
Since the ad made an allegation about "Obama's plan," we checked his Web site for any plan that mentioned drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants.
We couldn't find one. Obama's immigration plan doesn't have anything to say on the subject.
In phone interviews, Wilson and the PAC's executive director, Scott Wheeler, pointed to comments made by Obama in three debates during the Democratic primary as evidence for the claim.
In the first debate, on Oct. 30, 2007, NBC's Brian Williams asked Obama whether he was for or against a plan by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York to grant licenses to illegal immigrants.
"I think that it is a — the right idea," Obama said. "Because there is a public safety concern. We can make sure that drivers who are illegal come out of the shadows, that they can be tracked, that they are properly trained, and that will make our roads safer."
In another debate, on Nov. 15, 2007, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Obama, "Do you support or oppose drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants?"
"I am not proposing that that's what we do," Obama said. "I have already said I support the notion that we have to deal with public safety and that drivers' licenses at the state level can make that happen. ... But what I also know, Wolf, is that if we keep on getting distracted by this problem, then we are not solving it."
Blizter went on to press for a yes or no answer.
"Yes," Obama said.
In a third debate, on Jan. 31, 2008, Obama said: "On the drivers' license issue, I don't actually want — I don't believe that we're going to have to deal with this if we have comprehensive immigration reform because, as I said before, people don't come here to drive, they come here to work."
He continued, "I agree with Bill Richardson (who supported granting drivers' licenses to undocumented immigrants) that there is a public safety concern here and that we're better off — because I don't want a bunch of hit-and-run drivers because they're worried about being deported and so they don't report an accident."
So yes, Obama did indeed endorse the idea of granting drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants.
But does that amount to a "plan" to do so?
In the context of the presidential campaign, we think of a "plan" as a specific course of intended action a candidate has laid out, usually in writing. Voicing support at a debate for an idea — especially couched in qualifiers such as "I don't believe that we're going to have to deal with this," and "I am not proposing that that's what we do" — is a far cry from having a plan to do so.
"When we say 'Obama's plan' we're saying it's part of his plans, not necessarily that he's created a plan," Wheeler said.
But it's not part of his immigration plans. We also note that drivers' licenses are handled on the state level, and Obama is running for federal office.
The federal government can impose standards on states for drivers' licenses that would be federally recognized — and in fact Congress did so in 2005 when it passed elements of what had been known as the Real ID Act. It said states have to require "valid documentary evidence that the person (applying for a license) is a citizen or national of the United States" or has applied for any of several types of legal status.
Obama voted for that bill, which passed 99-0. We could not find any evidence that he had a plan to change those requirements, other than his debate comments, which don't amount to much of a plan.
Finally, Obama saying he favored the idea of giving drivers' licenses to undocumented immigrants is different from saying he would give them to "any illegal who wants one," as the ad claimed. If Obama were to offer a specific plan on the subject, who knows what restrictions it would include?
Certainly not the National Republican Trust.
So this group is guilty of some serious hyperbole. It took words of support from Obama for the concept of granting drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants and portrayed them not just as a specific plan, but as one that would hand licenses out like candy. We find it Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.
YouTube.com, Obama Wants Social Security for Illegals , Oct. 21, 2008, accessed Oct. 22, 2008
BarackObama.com, Barack Obama and Joe Biden: Fighting for Comprehensive Immigration Reform , accessed Oct. 23, 2008
Library of Congress, An Act Making Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief, for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2005, and for other purposes , accessed Oct. 23, 2008
Senate.gov, U.S. Senate Roll Call Votes 109th Congress - 1st Session , accessed Oct. 23, 2008
New York Times, The Democratic Debate , Nov. 15, 2007, accessed Oct. 23, 2008
New York Times, The Democratic Debate on MSNBC , Oct. 30, 2007, accessed Oct. 23, 2008
New York Times, Democratic Debate in Los Angeles , Jan. 31, 2008, accessed Oct. 23, 2008
Interview with advertisement producer Rick Wilson, Oct. 23, 2008
Interview with National Republican Trust PAC executive director Scott Wheeler, Oct. 23, 2008
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