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.
Sen. Daphne Jordan, a Republican from Saratoga, led a news conference attended by officials from three upstate counties who say there would be 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,” Jordan said. “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. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said if the Senate and the Assembly, which is also led by Democrats, approve the measure, he will sign it into law.
Jordan said the bill sets a double standard. She said law enforcement would not be permitted to review the records of an undocumented immigrant who is pulled over in a routine traffic stop, but could still do background checks on U.S. citizens who are stopped by police.
She also said 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 said they are not anti-immigrant, and he said his wife is a naturalized U.S. citizen. But Merola said 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 are being asked to “jump through hoops” to provide greater proof of identity for licenses that will be needed to board planes after Oct. 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 day,” Merola said. “It’s really about that document.”
Merola said 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 news conference was interrupted by protesters who support allowing licenses for the immigrants. They sang verses from folk singer Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” 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, though, with those holding the news conference at one point thanking the demonstrators for exercising their First Amendment rights.
David Banks from the group Green Light New York said New Yorkers would be safer if fewer undocumented immigrants are driving illegally.
“It’s Orwellian to suggest otherwise,’ said Banks, who added the immigrants who get licenses will have taken a driving test and will be able to get insurance and car inspections.
Some county leaders and county sheriffs in the state also support the 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.
Jordan is unpersuaded. She said she does not believe the current bill before the Legislature could be rewritten to 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.