Homeland Security bans NYers from 'trusted traveler' programs

Feb 6, 2020

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has announced it will no longer let New York residents enroll in its "trusted traveler" cross-border programs, including Global Entry and NEXUS, because of concerns raised by New York State's new "Green Light" law.

The law, which took effect in December, grants undocumented individuals the right to apply for a driver's license. Federal officials say the law blocks federal immigration officials from accessing motor vehicle records. In a three-page letter (see below), DHS said New York's "Green Light" law, which allows undocumented individuals the opportunity to apply for a driver's license, prevents federal agencies from protecting residents from "menacing threats to national security and public safety."

A view of the Peace Bridge from the U.S. side, with trucks and auto traffic awaiting customs processing.
Credit WBFO file photo

Dr. Steve MacMartin, who worked in homeland security for 31 years and now teaches it at Medaille College, says federal officials' concerns are legitimate.

"They're legitimate because there's a question now if it's easier now to commit a fraud in applying for a New York State driver's license," he said. "Not only is the process in question by federal authorities, access to the database has been restricted so that they can't do other checks that they would normally do. They have used and they require access to those databases to complete the application process (for "trusted traveler" programs)."

Under the Green Light law, agencies which enforce immigration law may only access state DMV information if a judge orders them to do so.

Those who currently hold NEXUS passes may still use them but, under the DHS move, will not be able to renew them upon expiration.

Advocates for cross-border commerce in Buffalo, while stating they are still studying details of the DHS move, are expressing concern for how it will affect the regional economy. Dottie Gallagher, president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, calls the move "extremely distressing and a complete disregard to the binational economy that we are building here." "This is really troublesome to people who have dual residences, who live and work in one another's countries, to people who shop, to people who come to our sporting events, all of those things that we need NEXUS has improved," Gallagher said.

She estimates the economic impact of cross-border traffic for tourism and recreation alone exceeds one billion dollars annually in Western New York alone. Craig Turner, president of the World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara, estimates overall cross-border commerce including truck traffic at $80 billion.

"We talk about it all the time, we are directly tied to Canada," he said. "Whenever you do a meeting in Canada, and if you say anything about your border experience, the first question is 'do you have NEXUS?' It's used. It's used very heavily in our region."

The move drew partisan reactions as well from elected officials including Governor Andrew Cuomo, who spoke Thursday morning on WAMC Radio.

"This is unbounded arrogance, disrespect of the rule of law, hyper-political government and this is another form of extortion," Cuomo said. "This is what Trump did with Ukraine. This is now the ethos of his federal government."

A Cuomo spokesman confirmed that the administration is considering legal options. In the meantime, New York State Attorney General Letitia James issued the following statement: "Despite President Trump’s attempt to punish New Yorkers for passing its own laws and standing up to his xenophobic policies, New York will not back down. Already, 13 additional states and the District of Columbia have passed similar laws to the one the Trump Administration cites in its letter, so we will resist efforts that target New Yorkers and cut off our access to Global Entry or any other Trusted Traveler Program. As the state’s attorney and chief law enforcement officer, I will continue to vigorously defend New York laws and our state’s residents against the president’s vindictive actions. New Yorkers will not be targeted or bullied by an authoritarian thug."

New York State Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy, meanwhile, points to the Green Light law as the root of the political spat between Albany and Washington.

"Every action is going to have consequences," he said. "And this is one of them. Anyone that's upset about this needs to call the governor and say 'Why did you do this? Why are you making our law enforcement shield their databases from the federal government?'"

Sharing the sentiment was Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns, who has pursued legal action to stop the Green Light law, renewed his commitment and encouraged legislators representing Western New York constituents to reconsider the law.

"Although this action will likely have an adverse impact upon economy and convenience of Western New York, it is a practical effort to secure our borders,” said Kearns in a prepared statement. “It is my sincere hope that the federal government and the State of New York will work together to amicably resolve these concerns. As the proverb goes, ‘When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.’"

In the meantime, Dr. MacMartin does not anticipate a significant increase in border wait times. He says in all his years spent working in homeland security, he never felt the need to apply for NEXUS.

"They're a great convenience, and I'm not saying you shouldn't have them, but travel without them isn't restricted in any way."

DHS Letter by WBFO on Scribd

Additional reactions came from elected officials including Congressmen Tom Reed and Brian Higgins. Said Reed in a prepared statement: "This is yet another result of one-party extremist control in Albany hurting New Yorkers, and we warned of this impending outcome two weeks ago. As someone who lived through 9/11, I am astonished how Governor Cuomo could disregard the words of the 9/11 Commission where they noted ‘For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons.’

"The Department of Homeland Security provides many services to New York not provided to other states. Albany must repeal the Green Light Law before the federal government is forced to take further action."

Higgins, meanwhile, stated: "White House actions against New York and Western New York trusted travelers are punitive and unacceptable. We are already receiving calls from Western New York residents in the final stages of trusted traveler enrollment who are being turned away today, and others confused as a result of this hasty, heavy handed and ill-conceived decision.

"Over 16.8 million truck and passenger vehicle crossings occurred on New York bridges in 2018, including more than 11.79 million right here on Western New York’s four northern border bridges. This policy deals a devastating blow to the New York and United States economy, threatens the future viability of Western New York’s commerce, auto manufacturing, health care and cultural economies that are highly dependent of predictable and efficient access to and from Southern Ontario. Make no mistake, the White House actions will directly and indirectly hurt all of us.

"There is no reason why law-abiding Americans and northern border commerce should be collateral damage in this policy dispute.  We are calling on the State and Federal governments to negotiate in good faith to allow for a return to reliable border operations."

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand issued ths following response to the DHS announcement: "Once again, the Trump administration is misusing the federal government for political retribution. There is no factual basis for this policy—its true design is to punish New York for embracing diversity and inclusion."