New York Assembly Approves Driver’s Licenses For Undocumented Immigrants

The state Assembly passed a bill for expanded access to licenses, but the "Green Light" legislation faces resistance in the state Senate.

A bill to allow all New York state residents to apply for a driver’s license regardless of their immigration status passed the state Assembly on Wednesday in a 86-50 vote.

Supporters of the bill say it will create safer roads, boost the state’s economy and protect New York families ― including by preventing traffic infractions from turning into deportations.  

The Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, also known as the “Green Light” bill, would expand the types of documents that New Yorkers can submit for a noncommercial driver’s license. Applicants who have not been issued a social security number could submit a signed affidavit instead.

The legislation is part of a nationwide push for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, which are already available in 12 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. New York, which is home to an estimated 725,000 undocumented people, would be the second-largest state to implement such a policy.

“What many people do not realize is that undocumented immigrants are already on the road, but they are doing so without a license or insurance,” said New York Transportation Committee Chair William Magnarelli in a statement.

Safe roads are ones on which all drivers are properly licensed, trained and insured, Magnarelli said.

Eladio Beltran, right, pushes his children in a car at their home in Albion, New York. Beltran faces deportation because he w
Eladio Beltran, right, pushes his children in a car at their home in Albion, New York. Beltran faces deportation because he was arrested for driving without a license. He is one of the many undocumented workers hoping to benefit from the "Green Light" bill.

The bill also includes privacy protections to limit “unfettered data searches by federal government.” For example, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would need an individual warrant to access information held by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

Until 2002, any New York state resident could apply for a driver’s license, but then Gov. George Pataki (R) issued an executive order requiring applicants to provide their social security number to receive a license.

Thought the Green Light bill passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly, opposition from both voters and legislators may stall it in the state Senate. Critics of the bill argue that undocumented immigrants don’t deserve the privilege of driving, and are concerned expanded access to licenses will lead to bank fraud, voter fraud or identity theft.

Eighty-two percent of Republican voters in New York and 55% of independent voters oppose the idea of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, a recent Siena College poll found. 

“While opponents continue to spread misinformation and stoke fears about the bill’s intent and consequences, the Assembly Majority will continue to put the needs of New Yorkers first,” Speaker Carl Heastie (D) said in a statement.

Fifty-three percent of New York Democrats support expanding access to driver’s licenses. Yet even on the Democratic side, there is resistance to the bill.

Jay Jacobs, chairman of the New York State Democratic Party, said he has called Long Island’s six Democratic senators to warn them about the “potential political consequences” of supporting the bill, Gothamist reported.  

Although New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office publicly announced that Cuomo would sign the bill if it gets to his desk, Gothamist reported in March that the Democrat is working against the bill in private.

“Is Andrew Cuomo afraid of the fact that the issue doesn’t poll well?” Steve Choi, the executive director of the New York Immigrant Coalition, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Daily News on Wednesday.

The New York Immigrant Coalition and other activist groups applauded the Assembly for “doing the right thing” by passing the Green Light bill and called on the Senate and Cuomo to act quickly, since the legislative session ends in June.

“This is our opportunity to finally achieve the passage of legislation that is integral to lifting up immigrant families in every corner of the state, and to see any of our lawmakers back away from this chance for the sake of electoral politics is hugely disappointing,” the groups said in a joint statement.

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