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Opponents Tell NYS: Don't Give Driver's Licenses To Undocumented Immigrants

Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
New York State Senator Daphne Jordan, R-Saratoga County, is joined by other officials from Saratoga and Rensselaer Counties to oppose driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants in New York State.

A bill to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses in New York is gaining support in the state legislature. But there’s also a growing backlash, and several upstate county sheriffs, county clerks and state lawmakers are explaining why they oppose the measure.

Senator Daphne Jordan, a Republican from Saratoga, led a news conference attended by county officials from three upstate counties who say there would be some unintended consequences if undocumented immigrants were to get the licenses.

“The concept of this legislation is bad, it’s poorly written and must be defeated,” said Jordan. “I say, ‘hit the brakes’ on licenses for illegal immigrants.”

Jordan is in the minority party in the Democratic-led State Senate, where the measure is gaining support. Governor Andrew Cuomo says if the Senate and the Assembly, which is also led by Democrats, approve the measure, he will sign it into law.  

Senator Jordan says the bill sets a double standard. She says law enforcement would not be permitted to review the records of an undocumented citizen who is pulled over in a routine traffic stop, but will still be allowed to do background checks on U.S. citizens who are stopped by police. And she says provisions that require a lower standard of proof of identity for obtaining standard driver’s licenses and rules that shield the immigrants’ backgrounds could lead to an underground market in identity theft.

“This is a license to commit fraud,” Jordan said.

And she worries that the licenses might lead to an increase in voter fraud, because driver’s licenses are often used as proof of identity for voter registration.  

Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola has operated the county’s DMV offices for more than 30 years. He and the others say they are not anti-immigrant, and he says his wife is a naturalized U.S. citizen. But Merola says if the measure passes, it will diminish the value of driver’s licenses as a proof of identity, at a time where many New Yorkers he says are being asked to “jump through hoops” to provide greater proof of identity for licenses that will be needed to board planes after October 1, 2020.

“Once we start giving driver’s licenses to people who are here illegally, you are diminishing the license that you carry every single say,” Merola said. “It’s really about that document.”      

Merola says if the bill becomes law, he might not obey it.

“I may just get a banner and put it across the front of the building that we will have ICE on speed dial,” Merola said.

The press conference was interrupted by protesters, who back driver’s licenses for the immigrants. They sang verses from folksinger Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and and at times heckled the speakers, saying their characterization of the bill is not accurate, and that they were engaging in “scare tactics.”  The exchanges were mostly polite, with those holding the press conference at one point thanking the demonstrators for exercising their First Amendment rights.

David Banks, from the group Green Light NY, says New Yorkers will be safer if fewer undocumented immigrants are driving illegally.

“It’s Orwellian to suggest otherwise,” said Banks, who says the immigrants who get licenses will have taken a driving test and will be able to get insurance and car inspections.

Credit Karen DeWitt / New York State Public Radio
New York State Public Radio
Members of Green Light NY gathered to counter the press conference.

Some county leaders and county sheriffs In New York support the driver’s license measure, including those in the Hudson Valley, Albany, the Bronx and Brooklyn.

Twelve other states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico already allow them. A 2017 study by Stanford University found California’s 2015 law did not increase the rate of traffic accidents, and reduced the rate of hit and run accidents.

Senator Jordan is unpersuaded. She says she does not believe the current bill before the legislature could be rewritten address her concerns.

“I think the fix is for them to become documented,” Jordan said.

The issue will be a hot topic when lawmakers return later this month for the final two months of the session.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.