ALBANY – New York would become the 13th state to let migrants in the country illegally obtain a driver's license, under legislation approved Wednesday by the State Assembly.
An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people are expected to apply for licenses under the effort if it becomes law.
That path to final approval is uncertain, however – as some State Senate Democrats, new to their majority status this year, are wrestling with an issue fraught with political risks in some areas of the state.
In the Assembly, where Democrats strongly dominate the 150-member chamber, passage was not in doubt. The bill was approved, 86 to 47.
Nineteen Democrats split from their party conference to vote against the bill, including every Democrat from the Buffalo area except Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, of Buffalo.
Supporters Wednesday touched on a mix of reasons for the measure’s passage: social justice for migrants who are already in the state and can’t legally drive to work or school or other places; safer roads by having immigrants in the country illegally pass written and driving tests; and economic development benefits from everything from higher car sales to more insurance policies written.
"It is common sense, good policy, the right thing to do," Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, a Bronx Democrat who sponsored the bill, told his colleagues.
Critics aimed at a number of directions, including the wisdom of letting people in the country illegally use what they say is less secure documentation to obtain licenses than many citizens now.
“Being in the United States is a privilege, and having a driver’s license is something that should only be allowed for those who are here legally," Assemblyman Michael Norris, a Lockport Republican, said in a statement.
Some Democrats, however, used the debate to sharply rebuke opponents – both in New York and elsewhere, in a nation so sharply divided over immigration issues.
Assemblyman Phil Ramos, a Long Island Democrat, chided critics for what he characterized as nitpicking the bill’s provisions. He said the bill “benefits U.S. citizens” by making roads safer.
A former Suffolk County police officer, Ramos said law enforcement would appreciate being able to know information about a person stopped on the streets that can be gotten if they carry a license.
“You want us to believe that law enforcement would rather have someone be anonymous?" Ramos said.
Instead, he said, the real opposition is based on an anti-immigrant view held in many segments of the nation. “We know what it’s about. It’s about the people who we are giving licenses to," he said of what he called a “segment of the community that has been demonized and used politically in order to garner votes."
“I know firsthand what anti-immigrant sentiment looks like," Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, a Queens Democrat, told her colleagues during a lengthy floor debate. Cruz illegally came to the United States at 9 with her mother – who was in the Assembly chamber during the debate – to escape violence in Colombia.
Cruz said the “sky has not fallen” on states that have legalized what supporters call the Green Light legislation.
“Today we show the world New York is a true beacon of immigrant hope," she said.
But critics, including many county clerks in Western New York who say they will not issue such driver's licenses if the bill gets final approval, say there is a more basic issue at hand: Such immigrants are not in the country legally and should not be rewarded with not only the right to legally drive but also access to a basic identification card.
Supporters of the bill have been pushing back at the county clerks making the threat not to comply; Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns, a former Assembly member, is among those who say they won’t comply with the licensing law, if adopted.
“County clerks can’t pick and choose which laws they’re going to support," State Sen. Luis Sepulveda, a Bronx Democrat and sponsor of the State Senate bill, said in a recent interview.
“There’s nothing they can do to stop the processing of licenses for undocumented people if it becomes law," he said, adding that the governor has the legal authority to remove county clerks from office for refusing to follow state law.
Opponents raised security concerns about giving licenses to those who might cause some public threat.
“I would argue that we are making our public safety goals much clearer to achieve," said Crespo, the Bronx Democrat.
Others said undocumented immigrants could use the licenses to vote, a worry dismissed by backers. Crespo said the bill limits the sharing of information about an undocumented migrant with federal immigration officials, but there are no restrictions on use of information about a license holder who may be charged with a crime.
Crespo also dismissed concerns, raised chiefly by county clerks, that verification of foreign-issued identification documents – used by migrant applicants to get a license – will be challenging and force counties to hire additional personnel. Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, a Saratoga County Republican, however, said local officials have told it her it would be a "pretty heavy lift" for county clerks' offices to process and verify foreign-issued identification documents.
The bill’s fate is uncertain in the State Senate, however. Democrats there are set to to discuss the matter in a private meeting before breaking for the weekend. Last week, the Gothamist reported that Jay Jacobs, the state Democratic Party chairman and a close confidante of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, had called six Democratic senators from Long Island and warned them of the political costs in next year’s elections if they vote in favor of the driver’s license bill.
It was an especially odd development given that Cuomo has publicly said the license bill is among his top end-of-session priorities to get done before lawmakers end their 2019 gathering next week.
One group used the Assembly’s backing to pressure State Senate Democrats to put the measure to a floor vote. “We also urge Gov. Cuomo to put his political muscle behind his stated support for the bill and help bring this issue over the finish line," said Steve Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.
Debate in the Assembly stretched more than three hours, with some lawmakers peppering their remarks in Spanish. One lawmaker, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, an Ulster County Democrat, said New York motorists will save millions in insurance costs by reducing the numbers in the uninsured drivers' pool.
The measure has been supported by immigration groups, labor unions, the state Business Council and the state Farm Bureau, as well as some insurers and other business groups.
Other states that let immigrants in the country illegally to obtain licenses do so in a range of ways. In Utah, for instance, such licenses are valid only for one year while Washington state gives the same license to migrants or citizens.
The New York bill would be stamped that they are not to be used for federal identification purposes. They would not be permitted to be used to board a flight or enter a federal building.