Ever since Nelson Melgar came to Glen Cove from Honduras as a 13-year-old undocumented immigrant, he has worked to assimilate into American society, and to help others like him. As an active member of several immigrant-advocacy groups, he says that there are many difficulties that immigrants face, but the inability to drive legally is one of the biggest.
Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Green Light Bill into law, allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain New York state driver’s licenses. The Assembly and Senate approved the measure in June. New York joins 12 other states, along with Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, in passing such legislation.
The Green Light Bill, Melgar said, is “quite possibly the most important piece of legislation for immigrant communities in the state of New York in recent times.” Driving without documentation, he explained, is one of the most common legal issues that arise in immigrant communities. Immigrants face far more severe consequences for infractions or accidents than other drivers, he said, so many of them are simply afraid to drive, despite the reality that driving is all but a basic necessity on Long Island.
“By allowing these people to drive with proper documentation,” Melgar said, “you are in essence allowing them to live without fear.”
According to state Attorney General Letitia James, the law is not new. Until 2001, undocumented immigrants were permitted to have driver’s licenses if they proved their residency and passed the required tests. That year, however, Gov. George Pataki reversed the measure in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer sought to re-implement the law, to no avail.
“This happened because of Long Island Latinos,” State Sen. Phil Ramos, a Brentwood Democrat, said of the push for the Green Light Bill. “They were meeting with senators and fighting to the very end.”
The law will take effect Dec. 1. The state Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that about 265,000 undocumented immigrants statewide will obtain licenses, including 51,000 on Long Island.
All six Long Island Democratic state senators, including Jim Gaughran, from Northport, voted against the measure. “Following countless meetings with stakeholders, residents, and advocates on the implications of this bill, our vote is based on the continued existence of serious concerns raised by stakeholders and law enforcement,” Gaughran said in a June 17 statement. “We will continue to stand together in the best interest of Long Islanders.”
The senators’ concerns focus on safeguards included in other states’ legislation that are not included in New York’s law. California, Utah, and parts of Hawaii require immigrants seeking driver’s licenses to be fingerprinted by the Department of Motor Vehicles, to ensure that an applicant doesn’t have a history of dangerous driving. And Maryland requires applicants to submit two years of state income taxes as proof of residency.
Local Republican lawmakers called passage of the law a “hard left turn,” and said that Democrats did nothing to stop the bill from being voted on by the full Legislature. At a June 25 news conference, Republicans called the measure “one of the worst laws to come out of the 2019 session.”
“Doling out driver’s licenses to people who are here illegally allows lawbreakers to jump to the front of the line, ahead of those who have obeyed the laws of our land,” said Republican Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino. “Worse yet, taxpayers will be subsidizing the cost of issuing licenses to those who are here illegally and are not paying taxes. It’s a disgrace.”
Upstate, several county clerks and DMV employees have questioned the new law, saying it would restrict their ability to carry out the oath they took to defend the Constitution. Nassau County Clerk Maureen O’Connell said that she, too, was concerned. “I’m wondering why the taxpayers should be paying to subsidize the providing of driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” she said. “In addition, issuing driver’s licenses under these circumstances may violate federal law.”
James and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Hochul have said they supported the new law and would defend it. “I support the Green Light Bill, and the Office of Attorney General has concluded that it is constitutional,” James said. “The law is well crafted and contains ample protections for all those who apply for driver’s licenses.”
The Herald Gazette took to Facebook to see what residents thought about the law, and the responses were evenly split, with half favoring the measure and half opposed to it.
Posting on Glen Cove Neighbors, Eric James wrote, “I am all for comprehensive immigration reform and trying to fix these issues, but if we are just going to start giving people that came here the wrong way drivers’ licenses, free health care and assisted college aid, what is the incentive for anyone to do it the right way in the future?”
“The people against this, the only defense they have seems to be anger,” wrote Glenn Paganetti, of Glen Cove. “I haven’t heard many rational reasons for not doing it. There are some actual benefits for allowing this: safety, insurance, taxes [and a] path to legalization.”
Many on Facebook said they believed the law would increase safety, since drivers are required to pass a road test in order to get licensed. Sea Cliff resident Karen O’Mara Swett wrote, “Legal or illegal I would like everybody who uses the road to have proven they can drive. Of course, we can question whether licensed drivers are actually capable of driving, but at least, in theory, you have to prove your capability in order to get a license.”
Bill Mozer, of Glen Head, disagreed, writing, “Obtaining a license has nothing to do with safe driving. It’s just a form of identification and a revenue stream for every state. This initiative is just a veiled attempt to recruit support for a progressive agenda.”
An economic benefit?
The Fiscal Policy Institute estimated that the law would generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue from new applicants for licenses and registrations, and new car buyers. And as a result of the law, New Yorkers can expect to save an average of $17 annually on their insurance premiums.
“Allowing undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses is good for everyone,” said Cyierra Roldan, a policy analyst at the institute. “Our roads will become safer, our local economies will grow, and it will protect New York immigrants from attacks by the federal administration that threaten to separate their families.”
Senator Ramos said that the law contains language to protect undocumented immigrants from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which cannot access New York state license records.
Both Melgar and Glen Cove resident Omar Salinas, who is from El Salvador and has worked with the National Temporary Protected Status Alliance over the past year, said they have seen overwhelmingly positive reactions from the undocumented immigrant community. Salinas said that many are excited about being able to drive without the threat of arrest or deportation. This is especially important now, he said, because the potential for ICE raids in the area remains a constant threat.
Melgar said he has seen a great deal of joy among undocumented immigrants since the new law passed, because it has given them with a sense of freedom. Although many remain concerned about their personal information being turned over to federal agencies, he said he had confidence in state officials to take care of the new license holders.
The new law, Melgar said, is a way to show the state cares about those who arrive in the U.S. from abroad. despite the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the White House. “This is a source of hope,” he said, “in this very difficult and trying time,” he said.
Alyssa Seidman and Laura Lane contributed to this story.