The New York State Senate voted 33-29 to allow undocumented immigrants to receive standard driver’s licenses. Gov. Andrew Cuomo raised some last-minute objections, saying he fears some data the state Department of Motor Vehicles collects on the immigrants might be accessed by the federal government and immigration officials. However, late in the evening, the governor signed the bill.
New York is now the 13th state to authorize driver's licenses for immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally.
During debate on the Senate floor, sponsor Luis Sepulveda said until President Donald Trump and Congress fix the nation's immigration problem, measures like granting undocumented immigrants driver's licenses are necessary.
"You look at these undocumented families, they cannot take their children to schools," Sepulveda said. "Some of them have children so sick that it brought me to tears because they cannot take a sick child to the hospital for medical attention."
The New York Immigration Coalition's Murad Awawdeh, who has been lobbying for the measure, said it would be a "game changer" for immigrants, especially for those working in areas where there is no public transit.
"Where people have to drive because there's no other way of getting around," Awawdeh said. "Having more people who are tested to drive, register their vehicles and have insurance on their vehicles, is a win-win for everyone in the state of New York."
Awawdeh said the measure would boost revenue through the licensing fees, reduce insurance premiums and make the streets safer. Studies show that in states where the licenses are already legal, there are fewer incidents of hit-and-run accidents.
The state Assembly passed the measure last week. Cuomo, who has said in the past that he supports the idea, dampened expectations on whether he would sign the bill in an interview on Albany public radio station WAMC.
Cuomo said in recent days, a new worry has developed. He said he has concerns that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, might be able to find a back way into the state DMV database and use that information to deport people.
"We have to write a law that does not have an unintended consequence, that's what the smart people are worried about," Cuomo said.
Cuomo pointed to a news report from California, where it is legal for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. It said ICE used backdoor methods to obtain personal information about some immigrants and then used that data to track them down and deport them.
Cuomo said he would ask the state's solicitor general, Barbara Underwood, to look over the measure and make sure its protections are adequate before he decides whether to sign it.
Awawdeh is skeptical about the governor's objections. He said the governor has been on record as supporting the driver's licenses for a dozen years.
When Cuomo was attorney general in 2007, he wrote a memo in support of a similar measure introduced by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Awawdeh said the current bill has been discussed for three years and includes protections aimed at addressing holes in California's system to better protect New York immigrants' personal data from ICE.
"I miss the 2007 Attorney General Cuomo," he said. "Not sure what happens since 2007 Cuomo to 2019 Cuomo, but I'm hoping he's not putting politics over the people of New York."
Monday evening, state Attorney General Leticia James issued a statement saying that she believes the bill is "well crafted and contains ample protections for those who apply for driver’s licenses."
“If this bill is enacted and challenged in court, we will vigorously defend it,” James said. “I support the Green Light bill and the Office of Attorney General has concluded that it is constitutional.”
Around an hour and a half later, Cuomo’s counsel, Alphonso David, said in a statement that he was satisfied with AG James’ assessment and that the governor would sign the bill.
Republicans, who are in the minority in both houses, are against the measure. GOP Sen. Jim Tedisco represents Schenectady and portions of its suburbs. Polls show the bill is unpopular in upstate areas.
Tedisco said granting the undocumented immigrants the licenses condones some of the unlawful actions that the immigrants took to get into the country.
"If I can come here as someone through the process illegally and get all the benefits and the privileges of what a citizen can get, why would I wait in line?" Tedisco said. "You are incentivizing them from not following through with the greatest gift any individual can get, becoming a citizen of the United States of America."
Tedisco said ultimately, it is about gaining voting rights for undocumented immigrants -- something advocates and bill sponsors have consistently said is not true.
The state's association of county clerks is against the measure and some county clerks in upstate New York, including Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns, have threatened to disobey the law if Cuomo ultimately signs it. They have said they will refuse to issue the licenses or even notify ICE if an undocumented immigrant tries to apply for one.
Under state law, the governor has the power to remove a county clerk from office if they refuse to carry out New York's statutes. Tedisco introduced an amendment to protect the county clerks in the event of such a scenario, but it was voted down along party lines.
Incoming New York GOP Chair Nick Langworthy had harsh words for Cuomo, who signed the bill late Monday night.
"Andrew Cuomo’s Democrat Party always puts the rights of law breakers ahead of taxpayers. Whether it’s paroling cop-killers, legalizing infanticide or giving free college and driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, Albany Democrats have proven they are in lockstep with leftist radicals and could care less about the priorities of taxpaying New Yorkers," Langworthy said. "We will constantly remind taxpayers about this and the many other mistaken priorities of Cuomo’s Democrat Party. We will make sure voters remember on Election Day 2019 and 2020."
Sen. Chris Jacobs (R-Buffalo), a former Erie County Clerk, called it a "sad day" in New York.
"A double standard has been created that rewards illegal behavior while law-abiding citizens will be subject to more stringent requirements and greater burdens of proof," Jacobs said. "Passage of this bill is an affront to every New York resident who follows the rules and obeys the laws, and it is a slight to every immigrant who came to this great country because of their respect for the rule of law and the safety and security that comes with it."