Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week signed into law the Green Light Bill allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain New York state driver’s licenses. The State Assembly and Senate approved the measure in June. New York joins 12 other states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico in passing such legislation.
According to state Attorney General Letitia James, the new law is not new. Until 2001, undocumented immigrants had been permitted to receive driver’s licenses after proving their residency and passing required tests. That year, however, Gov. George Pataki reversed the measure following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer sought to re-implement the law, to no avail.
State Sen. Phil Ramos, a Brentwood Democrat, said that Long Island’s Latino community helped pass the measure. “This happened because of Long Island Latinos,” Ramos said. “They were meeting with senators and fighting to the very end.”
The law will take effect Dec. 1. The Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that about 265,000 undocumented immigrants statewide will obtain licenses, including 64,000 north of New York City and 51,000 on Long Island.
Though Sen. John Brooks, a Democrat from Seaford, voted against the measure, along with Long Island’s five other Democratic senators, he said he would now support the law. “Now that the Green Light Bill has become state law, it’s important that we fulfill its promise to the members of our community it is designed to help,” Brooks said.
Assemblywoman Judy Griffin, a Democrat from Rockville Centre, also opposed the measure because, she said, she couldn’t vote for “a bill in the interest of expediency which may have an unknown adverse impact on the community I represent.”
“I raised several concerns about the bill,” Griffin said, “notably regarding the relationship between these driver’s licenses and voter registration, and the privacy of the undocumented community. These unanswered questions gave me pause.”
Assemblywoman Taylor Raynor, a Democrat from Hempstead, was unavailable for comment.
Rosa, a member of Freeport’s Latino community who did not want to be identified by her last name, said that local undocumented immigrants were excited about the new law, but they “don’t want to openly talk about [it] because they don’t want anyone to know they’re undocumented. Freeport is a small village.”
Carmen, who is from the Dominican Republic, said in her native Spanish that the new law will allow undocumented drivers to “finally confidently drive without worry or fear.”
“This new law,” she continued, “will allow so many people to find better jobs and, most importantly, get their families to where they need [to get] in a safer way.”
Carlos, who was chatting with friends in front of a Freeport barbershop, said in Spanish, “It’s about time they do something in favor of us. This will mean a lot of us are going to be able to take better care of our families.”
Long Island Republican lawmakers called passage of the law a “hard left turn.” They 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,” Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino, a Republican from Massapequa, said. “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.”
In upstate New York, several county clerks and Department of Motor Vehicles workers have questioned the new law, saying it would hamstring 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, and supported her upstate colleagues.
“I’m wondering why the taxpayers should be paying to subsidize the providing of driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants,” O’Connell said. “In addition, issuing driver’s licenses under these circumstances may violate federal law.”
James and State 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 Fiscal Policy Institute estimated that the law would generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue from new applicants for driver’s licenses and registrations and new car buyers. And as a result of the law, New Yorkers can expect to save $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 Fiscal Policy 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.”
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.
Mateo, a Freeport business owner, called the law a “double-edged sword.” He said he did not trust it, and thought it would allow the state to track undocumented immigrants. “It’s not a bad idea,” he said. “It’s a great thing, but honestly it’s a trap.”