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Another Voice: Widening access to driver’s licenses would benefit state

By Jennifer Connor

Last week Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo officially announced the nomination of Buffalo Comptroller Mark Schroeder for appointment as Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner, a seat that has been empty for four years. Schroeder immediately faced questions about proposed legislation that would restore driver’s license access to undocumented New Yorkers. He responded that his job is simply to “implement the law,” and indicated that he plans to follow the lead of state lawmakers who are poised to pass the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act.

The bill proposes making New York’s “standard license” accessible to all qualified drivers, regardless of immigration status. Under the state’s new REAL ID compliant licensing system, a standard license is for driving purposes only and cannot be used for federal purposes, such as boarding an airplane. The bill would directly benefit some 800,000 New Yorkers who are currently prevented from obtaining a license due to their immigration status.

However, virtually all New Yorkers stand to benefit from the measure. Other states with similar laws have seen improved traffic safety and lower insurance rates due to significant decreases in the number of unlicensed and uninsured drivers.

Schroeder especially should recognize the fiscal advantages of this proposed policy change. With more people purchasing, registering and insuring vehicles, state and county governments would receive an estimated $57 million in combined annual revenue and $26 million in one-time revenue through taxes and fees.

The bill would also have a positive impact on families throughout our region, especially farmers and the immigrant workers they depend on to harvest the crops and milk the cows. Without access to driver’s licenses, immigrant workers face many barriers to seeking and maintaining employment in agriculture, as well as an increased risk of detention and deportation over routine traffic stops.

Western New York deserves a reasoned assessment of the benefits of expanding driver’s license access, not one rooted in misinformation or bigotry. Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns continues to grandstand on this matter, threatening to defy state law if undocumented New Yorkers are permitted to obtain licenses. His stance is isolated and stuck in the past.

Schroeder has a record of fiscal responsibility and fairness. He is one of several Erie County leaders – along with Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Tim Kennedy – who can help secure driver’s license access for all immigrants and demonstrate Western New York’s ability to lead in the state.

Jennifer Connor is a co-founder of Justice for Migrant Families, WNY, and works on a statewide driver license campaign, Green Light New York: Driving Together.

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