Eddie Taveras, New York immigration manager for FWD.us, discusses the Green Light bill during an interview in the USA TODAY Network’s Albany Bureau, April 10, 2019. Jon Campbell, firstname.lastname@example.org
ALBANY – An effort to allow undocumented immigrants in New York to apply for driver’s licenses is expected to pass the state Assembly, but faces an uncertain future in the Senate as opponents, including county clerks, rail against the measure.
Immigration-rights advocates for years have pushed to make New York the 13th state in the nation to let immigrants in the country illegally access driver’s licenses, saying they are driving anyway and should have identification.
The Democrat-led Assembly is expected to vote on the bill, called the Green Light Bill, as early as Tuesday as lawmakers look to finish up their work for the year at the Capitol on June 19.
“Make no mistake, this legislation is a critical step towards making our roads safer, boosting our state’s economy and protecting hardworking New Yorkers and their families,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, both of the Bronx, said in a statement Wednesday.
The bill would allow the state Department of Motor Vehicles to accept a passport or other form of foreign identification as part of an application for a driver’s license, learners’ permit or non-driver ID cars.
Why is there opposition?
In the Democrat-controlled Senate, the bill’s fate is murky as some suburban lawmakers have expressed reservations about it, particularly senators on Long Island who are a key voting bloc.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who supports the bill, has said in recent days that he doesn’t believe the Senate has the votes to pass it, but senators who support the measure said the outcome is still undecided.
“Driver’s licenses, I believe the Assembly can pass,” he said Thursday on WAMC, a public-radio station in Albany. “I believe the Senate can’t pass it.”
He added, “If they pass driver’s licenses, I will sign it.”
Some lawmakers are facing opposition back home in their districts. A Siena College poll in March showed voters opposed the bill 61% to 34%, with the strongest disapproval in the New York City suburbs and upstate.
Jay Jacobs, the state Democratic chairman and Long Island powerbroker, said he has warned Long Island senators against supporting the bill, fearing it could lead to backlash at the polls in 2020, when all 63 Senate seats are on the ballot.
“On Long Island, it is exceptionally unpopular. For whatever reason, I don’t know,” Jacobs told Gothamist. “Do you really want to do it and lose the Senate majority and never be able to do anything ever again for another generation? Not me. I play the long game, not the short game.”
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Jacobs was appointed to his post by Cuomo earlier this year.
Clerks raise concerns
The state Association of County Clerks recently expressed reservations about the bill, and a number of clerks have indicated they would not process licenses for undocumented people.
Steuben County Clerk Judith Hunter, the group’s president, listed in a lengthy statement the clerks’ concerns with the potential law, including requiring the clerks to verify foreign documents — a function that had been done on the federal level.
Because the immigrant applicants do not have Social Security cards, the licenses would be identical to a standard license, but have a stamp that notes “not for federal purposes,” the clerks said.
“As proposed this legislation does not provide a solution for these system implementation concerns and does not provide increased funding for counties to address these issues,” Hunter said.
“Without these issues being addressed, processing the licenses at a local level will be difficult, perhaps impossible.”
Republicans rip the bill
Republicans this week rallied again a bill that would give driver licenses to undocumented New Yorkers Chad Arnold, Staff Writer
The clerks are not alone in their skepticism. Republicans are also ripping the bill, saying only citizens should get licenses in New York amid a national debate over immigration reform.
Senate Republicans charged the bill would open the door to illegal immigration and lead to issues like voter fraud.
“Our position is unmistakable. It hasn’t changed and we don’t anticipate it changing and we’re not wavering,” said Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, said at a news conference Wednesday.
But some Democratic senators said they would support the bill, which has been used against Democrats by Republicans in recent election cycles to claim Democrats are weak on immigration.
Sen. Peter Harckham, D-South Salem, represents a swing district through Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties and said he supports the bill because he think it’s a public-safety issue if undocumented immigrants have driver’s licenses.
“Our roads will be safer because these drivers will be properly licensed after passing road, vision and driving knowledge tests,” he said in a statement.
“For those concerned that this will somehow create an amnesty program, please note that ‘standard’ licenses cannot be used to apply for citizenship. In fact, a ‘standard’ license has no bearing whatsoever on immigration status.”
Bill’s supporters rally
Victor Cortez, an undocumented immigrant from the Rochester area, speaks out at a rally in Albany on Tuesday, March 12, 2019. Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
Advocates said the bill is critical to providing rights to undocumented immigrants in the state.
They estimated that 752,000 undocumented immigrants over the age of 16 in New York would be eligible to apply for driver’s licenses, with 265,000 of them applying within the first three years.
The immigration-rights group Make the Road New York said the influx of people getting driver’s licenses will boost state and local tax revenue and lower premiums as more drivers get automobile insurance.
The state Business Council and the powerful health-care workers union 1199SEIU have recently endorsed the measure.
“We are supporting this bill because it sends a signal to Washington that comprehensive immigration reform is a necessary business issue, and because it’s the right and decent thing to do,” Heather Briccetti, the council’s president, said in a statement May 29.
Heastie and Democratic supporters said undocumented immigrants are already driving, so the state should at least require them to go through the steps to get a license like all other New Yorkers, such as operating registered and insured vehicles.
He said that until 2001, New York allowed all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status, to get driver’s licenses.
For farmers in rural New York, Heastie said, “the ability of their laborers to get to and from work is critical to their livelihood. Simply put, our economy depends on people being able to get to work.”
Includes reporting by Albany Bureau staff writers Chad Arnold and Jon Campbell.
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