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New York Immigrant Driver's License Bill Gets A Boost

Heather Ainsworth
Eladio Beltran hugs his daughter, Nisi, 10, as she arrives home from school at their home in Albion, N.Y., in March. Beltran faces deportation because he was arrested for driving without a license.

A leading business group has come out in favor of granting drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, increasing the chances of the bill’s passage in the legislature this year.

The Business Council’s President Heather Briccetti says reinstituting the policy of issuing New York State driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants will make the roads safer and help businesses, who are seeking workers during a labor shortage.

“Our immigration system is broken, this does not fix it, but it gives undocumented immigrants the opportunity to sit for a test, to get license, to get on the road, and to have insurance,” said Briccetti. “So that when they are driving on the road they will be covered.”

The Business Council’s membership includes most major upstate businesses, including Corning and Eastman Kodak, and Briccetti says her group’s support might help provide “cover” for upstate Democrats who may be on the fence over the issue.

“I hope so,” Said Briccetti. “I think there’s a really easy, valid reason to do this.”

Briccetti was joined by the sponsors of the bills, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo and Senator Luis Sepulveda. Crespos says the bill has been amended to make it easier for law enforcement to seek DMV records of the immigrants if they are pulled over for traffic infractions.

“It was never the intention to interfere with local law enforcement’s common practice to enforce traffic laws,” said Crespo.

Opponents of the bill, including some county clerks, say granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants diminishes the value of the document to legal residents, and could lead to criminals taking advantage of the system, and even to open a back door to illegal voting. Some county clerks have said they would not grant the licenses, if the bill became law.

Senator Sepulveda says those accusations have been disproven. And he says if the clerks won’t grant the license, they should be removed from office.

“The governor has, within the constitutional powers given to him, the right to remove a county clerk that doesn’t follow the law,” said Sepulveda, who say he’s also introduced legislation to explicitly allow the governor to remove a county clerk under those circumstances.  

The state’s lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, was Erie County clerk 12 years ago, when former Governor Eliot Spitzer proposed a similar measure. Hochul said at the time she would turn over any applicants for the license to immigration authorities. She now backs granting the licenses. The bill sponsors say Hochul’s reversal on the issue also helps their cause.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says the new support is “helpful” towards getting the measure passed. But she would not guarantee a vote right now in the Senate.

“We keep talking, we keep pushing,” said Stewart-Cousins.  

Senate sponsor Sepulvada says that the Democratic Senate is “diverse” and that some of the newly elected Democrats from Long Island still have some concerns. But he says he will meet with them over the next few days to try to address that.

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.