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Update: New York State approves licenses for undocumented immigrants

Update: The bill was also approved in the New York State Senate Monday and signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Original Story

A bill that would permit undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses passed in the State Assembly Wednesday.

Green Light NY, formally known as the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, passed by an 86-47 vote and now awaits a vote in the state Senate.

It’s unclear when that vote might take place as the legislative session ends June 19.

The bill would allow undocumented immigrants access to the “standard” license, one of three license types the federal government will unveil in October 2020.

Minerva Perez, executive director of Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, said Thursday that she was thankful the bill passed. “The East End of the Island has no viable public transportation and is virtually unlivable without a car,” she said. “Having licensed and insured drivers on the road is safer for all.”

Historically, undocumented residents in New York were allowed to have driver’s licenses if they passed the required tests and proved their residency. In 2001, former governor George Pataki reversed the measure via executive order.

Currently, only 12 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico allow undocumented immigrants to have driver’s licenses.

Supporters of the legislation launched a statewide lobbying effort this spring. At a rally held in Riverhead in March, more than a hundred people marched down Roanoke Avenue to Main Street and then east all the way to Route 58, ending at the Department of Motor Vehicles parking lot. Organizers said that allowing all New York residents, regardless of immigration status, access to driver’s licenses would improve public safety, provide a boost to the state’s economy and allow immigrants to navigate their communities without fear.

Data from the Fiscal Policy Institute suggests that 51,000 undocumented Long Islanders could be impacted by the bill and the state could recevie an estimated $57 million in new revenue.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said Friday that he initially opposed the first draft of the legislation, but believes the rewritten bill addresses his concerns. “[The East End police chiefs] agree that everyone who drives in New York State should have a valid driver’s license. That’s a no-brainer,” he said, adding that there are public safety advantages to every driver being licensed.

Under the legislation, undocumented license applicants must pass a driving test and be made aware of traffic laws to help ensure they are operating registered, inspected and insured vehicles.

Increased fees generated from new licenses would continue to be earmarked for the dedicated Highway and Bridge Trust fund, which helps fix transportation infrastructure, officials said.

Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) did not support the measure.

In a statement issued after the vote, he said time will reveal the “real dangers” of the bill. “When we legitimize illegal immigration by rewarding individuals here illegally with driver’s licenses, we encourage it to continue,” he said in the statement. “This bill not only encourages illegal immigration but goes directly against federal law and protects those who break it,” he continued, adding that the legislature should “get back on track” and focus on issues such as taxes.

Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) indicated he would vote against the bill, issuing this statement: “I was a member of a NYS Senate Task Force on Immigration and I have studied this issue. I remain steadfast in my position that granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants is a clear threat to public safety and sends a wrong message to hardworking, law-abiding New Yorkers.”

South Fork Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) cited public safety as his reason for supporting the bill. He also noted that public transportation isn’t widely available on the East End.

“For undocumented New Yorkers, they take a risk each time they need to drive because our current laws bar them from doing so. By removing these barriers, we can help them go about their daily lives while improving road safety and boosting local economies. It’s smart policy and helps ensure no one is pushed further into the shadows,” Mr. Thiele said in a statement. “We can’t get sidetracked by fear, rumors or bigotry — we need to focus on the facts, and the facts tell us loud and clear that making sure everyone on the road has a driver’s license makes us all safer.”

He noted that the local economy depends on immigrants being economically self-sufficient and emphasized that the legislation does not impact voting rights, Enhanced or Real-ID licenses which will soon be needed for air travel or federal immigration laws or status.

Ms. Perez called for the senate and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to act. “The fact that some politicians are using this basic piece of legislation to further divisive rhetoric or hide behind it is a shame,” she said.

Caption: Demonstrators marched through downtown Riverhead in March to support legislation that would grant undocumented immigrants ability to secure a driver’s license. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

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