Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns says if New York State moves forward with legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses, the county's Auto Bureau will not go along.
Kearns hosted a news conference Thursday at the Clerk's Office to announce that if the proposed Drivers License Access and Privacy Act were to either pass the Legislature or be imposed via executive order by Governor Andrew Cuomo, auto bureaus in Erie County would still not issue licenses to undocumented immigrants.
"As the Erie County Clerk, elected by the taxpayers of Erie County to look out for their best interests, I cannot in good conscience follow through on a policy that would violate federal laws by knowingly providing government identification to people here illegally."
Kearns says a driver's license is more than permission to operate a motor vehicle but a form of legal identification for various other purposes.
His announcement quickly drew criticism from many, including Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke.
"Mickey Kearns is not a constitutional scholar and he has committed to upholding the laws of New York State," Burke said. "We have a different process. We have judicial review to determine whether things are constitutional or not. And we've seen this before."
Burke pointed to the case of Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Kentucky Clerk. She gained notoriety in 2015 when she refused to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples despite a federal court order. Davis, who cited conflict with her religious beliefs as the reason not to comply, spent some time in jail for her disobedience. Burke openly wondered if Kearns might be willing to do the same.
"It's funny he's doing it now when it's not an actual policy. We'll see how brave he is when he's risking potential jail time," Burke said.
Kearns denied that his stance was politically motivated and he denied violating his oath of office. He pointed out that former governor Eliot Spitzer also attempted to order legislation allowing undocumented immigrants the opportunity to obtain a driver's license but backed off following strong backlash from county clerks.
He suggests if Cuomo attempts his own order, he too will be greeted with sharp resistance.
"There's lots of things we do with the state, that we challenge the state. The state wanted to close the (Western New York) Children's Psychiatric Center for many, many years. We fought the governor on that and he changed his mind on that," Kearns said. "I guess we'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it but right now, as it stands, I'm not going to support that and will not support that as clerk."
Kearns pointed out that even citizens are turned away from the Auto Bureau if they fail to present required documents to prove their lawful status. He also stated that non-US citizens may apply for a driver's license, including refugees, if they present documentation provided to them by the US Department of Homeland Security.