New York State ‘green lights’ licenses for immigrants

New York State ‘green lights’ licenses for immigrants

People at the June 7 rally held signs supporting Green Light NY bill. Photo by David Luces

After a contentious back and forth between state Democrats and Republicans, the green light bill, a measure that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license in New York State, passed the New York State Senate June 17 and was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). 

The vote makes New York the 13th state in the nation to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. In the past, undocumented immigrants in New York were allowed to have driver’s licenses if they passed the required tests and proved their residency. In 2001, former governor George Pataki reversed the measure via executive order.

“Driving in New York State is a privilege, not a guaranteed right.”

— John Kennedy Jr.

Proponents of the bill say that the bill would improve public safety and the economy.

“Today is a historic day for New York’s hard working immigrant community,” said Steven Choi, the executive director at the New York Immigration Coalition. “We are glad to see that Governor Cuomo did the right thing by signing the Green Light NY bill into law.” 

In the lead up to the vote there was some hesitation of support from some Democrats, which critics attributed to being wary of backlash to the bill and its impact on the 2020 election year.

Jay Jacobs, The Nassau County Democratic chairman, warned the six senators who represent Long Island about the potential political backlash of supporting the bill, according to an article in Gothamist.  

Jacobs told Gothamist that he personally supports the legislation but believes the bill is too polarizing to pursue in the current legislative session.

The legislation moved forward without the support of the six Long Island Democratic senators, who all voted no, as well as three other Republican senators. 

“I am disappointed that the state lawmakers in Albany voted to approve this terrible piece of legislation,” John Kennedy, Suffolk County comptroller and county executive candidate, said in a statement. “Driving in New York State is a privilege, not a guaranteed right, and we should not be extending privileges to those who do not follow the law. I strongly urge the Governor to do the right thing and veto this legislation.”

Other Republicans in the state Legislature shared opposition to the green light bill.  

“This legislation is an outrage to law-abiding New Yorkers, as well as to new Americans that have taken the appropriate steps to become citizens legally,” New York State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said in a letter. “The overwhelming majority of New Yorkers oppose issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. And yet, that is exactly what Senate Democrats did.”

The Long Island Democratic Senate Delegation said in a statement that they value the important contributions made by immigrants to the local economy and communities. 

“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,” the statement read. “We will continue to stand together in the best interest of Long Islanders.”

Some lawmakers shared concerns that the  Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency could possibly obtain driver’s information and use it for deporting individuals.

Cuomo also raised similar concerns before the vote, stating that he would veto the bill if the federal government would be able to access driver’s information that could be used for deportation. He then asked the state attorney general to review the bill and would sign the bill if it didn’t give federal authorities access to DMV databases. 

State Attorney General Letitia James (D) wrote a statement the night of vote. 

“The legislation is well crafted and contains ample protections for those who apply for driver’s licenses,” James said in a statement. “If this bill is enacted and challenged in court, we will vigorously defend it.”

The bill would require undocumented immigrants to take a driver’s license exam and be able to buy car insurance. The measure would go into effect in 180 days and undocumented immigrants could get licenses starting
in December.

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