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Cuomo signs bill allowing driver's licenses for migrants in country illegally

ALBANY — Migrants in the country illegally will be able to obtain a New York State driver’s license under legislation given final approval Monday in the state Senate.

After some intriguing back-and-forth maneuvering with the state's attorney general, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Monday night signed the bill into law, making New York the 13th state to have some sort of driver’s license program for people in the country without immigration papers. The measure was approved last week by the Assembly.

The Democratic-controlled Senate, after more than four hours of acrimonious debate and speeches, okayed the measure by a 33 to 29 margin.

“By passing this needed legislation, we are growing our economy while at the same time making our roads safer. This is the right step forward for New York State as we continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform on the federal level," said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat.

The bill came amid a flurry of deals on other policy matters — from measures to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions to legalizing electric scooters and electric bikes throughout New York.

One of the session’s most contentious issues — legalization of marijuana — remains unresolved. Three-way talks among negotiators for the governor, Assembly and Senate ran into a wall overnight, sources said.

If they don’t get back on track before the 2019 session ends later this week, lawmakers are considering expanding existing decriminalization laws — which date to 1977 and haven’t prevented thousands of arrests over the years — as well as a process that allows people with misdemeanor marijuana criminal records to have them expunged. Lawmakers are also looking at a sharp expansion of the existing medical marijuana law to make the drug more widely available.

The driver’s license legislation will permit migrants without immigration papers to use foreign-issued documents as identification to get a state driver’s license.

In recent weeks, a number of county clerks have said they will not process applications from such immigrants. The clerks, including those in Erie, Niagara and other Western New York counties, have said they will point such individuals to State Department of Motor Vehicle offices; the nearest to the Buffalo area is in Syracuse. Others have said they will notify federal immigration officials if an undocumented immigrant seeks a license in their office.

Legislators who support the bill have said that the governor can fire county clerks if they don't issue the licenses.

"County clerks were elected to do a job, which is to uphold the law and to do their jobs lawfully and once this bill gets passed and signed into law they're expected to do their job,'' said Murad Awawdeh, vice president of advocacy at the New York Immigration Coalition.

Cuomo, who publicly supports the effort, has been raising a new concern in the past week: that federal immigration offices will seek to obtain the license information on such immigrants and potentially deport them.

Cuomo said on an Albany radio station Monday that the “smart people” in the debate are worrying about such a possibility. He said he has asked State Solicitor General Barbara Underwood to weigh in on the legislation to see if there is any legal loophole in which federal officials could obtain the DMV records of such immigrants who get licenses. His lawyer made a formal request to Underwood — including asking for possible changes to the bill — right as the Senate was debating the bill.

But, in a surprise development during the Senate voting, New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, said her office would not “opine on any actions the federal government may or may not take’’ as Cuomo requested. James appointed Underwood to the solicitor general’s position.

The attorney general said the bill is constitutional and “well crafted” and that her office will “vigorously defend” it if challenged in court.

An hour or so later, Cuomo's lawyer, Alphonso David, said the governor will sign the bill and that he hopes James "is correct for the safety of the thousands of undocumented individuals who are relying on her legal opinion.''

Senate Republicans pushed back during a floor debate. “Why do these immigrants choose to remain undocumented, when they could become documented?" asked Sen. Daphne Jordan of  Saratoga County. She said county clerks won’t be able to verify foreign documents to be used for obtaining driver’s licenses. She said supporters were voting “for fraud on the scale New York has never before seen."

Senator Luis Sepulveda, a Bronx Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said “theoretically” that some migrants might try to use licenses to register to vote, but called the worry about voter fraud “a fantasy.’’ But he said such migrants trying to vote would break the state’s election laws.

"Careful, your xenophobia is showing,'' Senator Jessica Ramos, a Queens Democrat, chided opponents of the bill.

Advocates have said at least 200,000 people in the country illegally will apply to get a license. They say it will make the roads safer and push people who are driving illegally to obtain auto insurance. Advocates say the legislation will be taken advantage of more in upstate and Long Island areas where public transportation options are more limited.

Deals also have been reached on changes in state law to redefine what constitutes workplace sexual harassment and there is a tentative deal to have New York reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a certain level by 2050. Details on those issues are still emerging.

Five other states have set goals for reduction of greenhouse emissions, including California.

The two houses have also agreed on a bill to permit electric scooters and electric bicycles throughout the state. Local ordinances can guide the extent the devices can be used and whether, for instance, they can operate on sidewalks. Communities can choose to opt out of the law to prevent the devices' use.

The devices are ubiquitous in some areas of the country, such as in many communities in southern California and Austin, Texas. Critics say the devices pose a danger to pedestrians and operators, many of whom ride without helmets. Consumer Reports earlier this year said 1,500 people have been injured in electric scooter-related accidents since late 2017.

The scooter industry, which had an expensive lobbying campaign to open up the lucrative New York market, say the devices offer a cheaper mode of transportation and are especially popular for short trips to a market or from a bus stop to near a customer’s home.

“Now the full Legislature just has to deliver the promise of greater mobility so that New Yorkers can take advantage of micro-mobility, improving commutes, the environment and quality of life across the state," said Phil Jones, senior director of East Coast government relations for San Francisco-based Lime, a fast-growing electric scooter company.

Electric scooter companies have been spending at least $40,000 a month on lobbying in Albany. The industry includes firms unknown only a few years ago: Bird Rides, Bolt and Lime, which earlier this month had lobbyists pushing around an electric scooter in the halls of the Capitol as a show and tell for lawmakers. The companies charge consumers a fee to activate a device and then a per minute charge.

The electric scooters will have a top allowable speed in New York of 20 mph, the same speed at which the pedal assist feature on an electric bike must turn off.

“This is a great opportunity for the state to improve transportation alternatives for people throughout the state,’’ said Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat who chairs the Senate transportation committee. “It’s also bringing our state into the 21st century … and is really a tremendous opportunity for a new and upcoming industry to take root in the state of New York.’’

Short-term scooter sharing by companies like Lime can be offered anywhere in the state, except the island of Manhattan; there, e-scooters will be permitted only if owned by its user. E-bikes can be used anywhere. Current helmet laws that apply to regular bicycles will be placed on e-bikes — riders under age 14 must wear helmets — and no one under the age of 16 can use an e-scooter. E-scooters will have no helmet requirements.

Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, a Queens Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said mayors and city council members from across the state have been requesting action on the bill. She said there are a number of provisions in the bill to promote safe use of the devices.

“Having said that, if a locality wants to go further they’re more than welcome to," she said Monday. “In cities across the country, we’ve seen safety at the forefront and, quite honestly, getting into a car is just as unsafe if not more unsafe.’’

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