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Let undocumented immigrants drive legally


Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed the aptly named Green Light Law, which will allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. This isn’t a new law. If anything, it takes New York back to the more trusting years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In 2001, Gov. George Pataki overturned the law allowing undocumented immigrants to get licenses, saying the practice posed a security risk. It might have in the weeks and months after the attacks, so no one questioned Pataki’s thinking. But we are now long past 9/11, and it is time to apply sound reason to this question.

Long Island has 51,000 potential drivers from around the world who will potentially benefit from the new (old) measure.

New York is considered by many — including President Trump — to be a so-called “sanctuary” state for undocumented immigrants, because it gives them a modicum of freedom to move about and work without fear of random deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when they are processed for traffic tickets and other minor infractions of the law.

If undocumented immigrants are here, and they are driving — which they are — it makes perfect sense to license them. Licensed drivers are safer drivers. They are in the Department of Motor Vehicles system, so if they are in a crash or break our traffic laws, they can be processed and penalized, the same as everyone else. Moreover, they must demonstrate driving competency through written and road tests.

After California removed the “legal proof” requirement in 2015, the state saw a 10 percent drop in hit-and-run accidents, saving Californians millions of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses. That decrease was likely because licensed drivers can obtain insurance. If you know you can pay for an accident through your insurance, you’re far less likely to just drive away. That also helps lower insurance rates for everyone, if only a little.

Allowing undocumented immigrants to get licenses will also help fill the state’s coffers. On Long Island alone, those new licenses could bring in nearly $3.3 million, at $64.25 per license. Insurance companies and car dealerships will also see financial gains, helping to bolster the economy. More people with driver’s licenses could also mean more people with cars and a boost to the local economy. Undocumented immigrants could purchase and register as many as 97,000 cars statewide, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

Some 800 new DMV employees may be hired to process all of the new applications for licenses and registrations, further helping the economy.

Many elected leaders and conservative activists who oppose the measure say it unfairly rewards undocumented immigrants for coming here illegally, ahead of those who waited in line to enter the country legally. That position has some merit. Why should we give undocumented immigrants certain legal rights if they aren’t in the country lawfully in the first place?

The answer is multi-pronged. For starters, many of the undocumented immigrants who are now here, particularly those from Latin America, are fleeing civil unrest and narco-trade violence that threaten their families. They are, in a very real sense, refugees. New York has long been a welcoming place for immigrants, legal or not. The Statute of Liberty implores us to take in the world’s tired, poor and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

At the same time, we mustn’t forget that undocumented immigrants contribute to the economy. They pay roughly $11.64 billion in state and local taxes. On average, immigrants, regardless of status, contribute $80,000 more in taxes than they receive in government services over their lifetimes. On average, one undocumented immigrant will pay about 8 percent of personal income in taxes.

Legal or not, immigrants also help sustain the Social Security Trust Fund, which we constantly hear will eventually run out of money. Over the years, they have contributed about $300 billion to the fund. Without their contributions, it would be insolvent after 2037.

Contrary to popular opinion, undocumented immigrants aren’t draining the system of its resources. They’re helping keep the system alive. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t just take, take, take. In 1996, President Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform bill restricted access to public benefits for many immigrants, in particular undocumented ones.

Since, legal or not, they are contributing to the system, they should, from a purely moral standpoint, receive some benefit from it. That begins with awarding licenses to those who are qualified to drive.