ALBANY – State lawmakers in one house at least are moving to vote next week on a measure that would allow immigrants in the country illegally to obtain a New York driver’s license.
The Assembly transportation committee has the item on its calendar for Wednesday, when it is expected to be approved and then be closer to what an Assembly source said is expected passage sometime next week.
In the Senate, where the matter was blocked for years when Republicans held control of the chamber, sources said the legislation is still being discussed by Democrats who now run the house. Sources say there is support in the Democratic conference, but perhaps not enough backing to get to 32 yes votes on a topic that won’t attract GOP senators.
But, this being Albany, movement one day on many such thorny issues can be suddenly derailed – or brought back to life – in the frenzied, end-of-session backroom maneuvering over controversial bills that either remain as concepts or get made into state statutes.
Word of the looming passage in the Assembly came as some county clerks met in Corning to discuss the issue. A number of clerks – including Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns – say they will not process driver's licenses of such immigrants if the bill is passed and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signs it into law. Cuomo has made passage one of his top 10 priorities for the remaining days of session, now set to end June 19.
The issue is raising a number of political and practical concerns for the county clerks, including what they say is an inability to adequately verify foreign documents that such immigrants will be able to present to their auto bureaus to get a license.
The issue brought the incoming New York State Republican Party chairman, Nick Langworthy, to the Capitol on Monday. Meeting with reporters between the two legislative chambers, Langworthy, who recently secured enough support to take over the statewide party in July, said New Yorkers are “outraged" that the driver's license issue will be among the final major topics to be considered by lawmakers this year.
“This is not a Republican/Democrat issue; this is a matter of fundamental fairness," Langworthy said. He said licenses should not be given to people who “broke the law to come into our country. … It shows a further disrespect to the rule of law."
Besides being a “slap in the face” to immigrants who come legally to the United States, the GOP leader said the license plan will be another unfunded state mandate on counties that process driver's licenses.
Kearns, an independent Democrat, said he still has to devise a budget for his office to try to take into account the immigrant license program even though he said he will not process such licenses. “We have to prepare. I don’t know if the governor is going to try to remove me from office."
“If I don’t do it, what happens if the county is sued?" Kearns said, adding that he needs to budget for such a possibility.
A big health care union, which supports the legislation, said its members have seen the effects of medical care being delayed for such immigrants who get into car accidents but don’t have proper documentation. “The Green Light bill would allow undocumented residents to come out of the shadows and become full participants in the state’s economy by obtaining the driver's licenses needed to travel to and from work," said Gabrielle Seay, political director at 1199SEIU.
“Now is the time for New York to become a progressive national leader on this life-saving issue,’’ Seay said. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar laws.
The current law requires submission of a Social Security number to obtain a driver’s license. The plan on the table would permit applicants to say they do not have a Social Security number and they could use a foreign document for purposes of identification for a New York license.
The New York State Association of County Clerks, in a statement Monday, said county-run auto bureaus – which process driver's licenses and other auto registration documents on behalf of the state government in many counties across New York – will suddenly find themselves having to verify the veracity of foreign-issued documents, such as birth certificates. They said the pending legislation will also require more staff at the local level to provide translation services.
Judith Hunter, president of the county clerks’ group and the clerk for Steuben County, said some counties now have translation services but will have to be boosted if projections are correct that 200,000 immigrants will apply for licenses under the Green Light bill.
Hunter noted that none of those concerns, including the cost element, is addressed in the legislation. She said if not resolved, processing the expanded immigrant license program at the local level “will be difficult, perhaps impossible.” She urged the bill’s sponsors to work with localities “to better understand the local impact of this legislation."
Kearns noted that if other clerks in Western New York join him in refusing to process such licenses, it will require applicants to travel to Syracuse – the next closest place where there is a state government-run DMV office.
In 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer began a program to give licenses to people in the country illegally; he retreated two months later after stiff opposition, including by county clerks at the time.
Joseph Jastrzemski, the Niagara County clerk, said the clerks from five Western New York counties have told their statewide association that they will not give drivers licenses to people in the country illegally. Jaztremski attended the meeting in Corning Monday, widely attended by other county clerks. He would not give a precise count of how many clerks from around the state who agree with his position, but said he is not in the minority.
“It’s a privilege to drive in New York State. An illegal alien is breaking the federal law being in our country and we should not be giving people breaking the law a drivers license. I’m not going to do it and I’m not going to ask my staff to break the law,’’ Jaztrzemski said Monday evening.
“There’s a lot of passionate county clerks out there that are feeling strong that this is a bad bill,’’ he said.