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How would driver's licenses work for those in the country illegally?

A bill allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses proved one of the more controversial to emerge as a law in a historic legislative session in Albany. It has since become a campaign issue in the race for Erie County executive.

It also led to many questions from readers, including how local elected officials voted for the bill, what documentation would be required for undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses and more.

We sent your questions to Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious. Digital Engagement Editor Qina Liu helped compile questions for readers.

From @BillyBillsFan1 on Twitter: I just want to know one thing: What is the benefit to allowing people that are not citizens of this country to gain licenses in this country?

Precious:  From the perspective of the bill’s sponsors, permitting such people to obtain driver’s licenses will offer a number of benefits both to citizens and non-citizens.

One argument: public safety. They say many such undocumented immigrants are already on the roads driving illegally to jobs, or to stores, or to health appointments. Without licenses and fearing deportation, these people, like other drivers, get into accidents, and some might believe fleeing the scene of an accident is a better option than legally staying put until police arrive. The new law, supporters say, will provide a path for a person to take a written exam and road test in order to get a license. Further, they say many such drivers will then obtain auto insurance, which will expand the insurance pool and potentially drive down rates for all drivers.

The other argument backers make: social justice. They say these people already are living and working in many communities and that this measure will help improve their economic standing by letting them legally drive to work, for instance. One 2017 estimate from the Center for Migration Studies of New York, a nonpartisan group, said there are 752,000 unauthorized immigrants 16 years and older living in New York State.

Most are people who live in New York City and have better access to public transportation, leaving supporters of the law suggesting that it will be such people living upstate and on Long Island who will be better served by the new law.

People wait in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Lockport. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)


From Ben Bauer Sr.: How did our local "leaders" vote?

From Christopher Hayes: When is the election? When do I vote the Assembly members out?

Precious: The Driver’s License and Privacy Act, also called the “Green Light New York” bill, passed the state Senate on June 17 by a 33-29 margin. The sole "yes" vote from Western New York senators was Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat.

The bill passed the state Assembly on June 12 by an 87-61 margin. The sole "yes" vote from Western New York lawmakers in that house came from Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the bill into law on June 17.

The next general election for state lawmakers is November 2020. The next general election for governor is November 2022.


From Andrew Green: How does this even work in practice? Does illegal alien X just go say "I'm John Doe and my birthdate is Y"? Why should I have had to bring multiple identifying documents?

From Nettie Kolo: How do you get a license without a Social Security number?

From Deborah Domanski Maving: So what form of ID will they need? Will they also be free to them? And what about insurance? Hope it's the same rules for them as it is for us legal tax-paying Americans!

From Don Carlson: So will the state be relaxing the ID requirements for citizens to get a license, or will it be easier for an illegal to obtain a license than a citizen?

Precious: At its core, the measure makes it possible to get a driver’s license in New York without having a Social Security number. Such a route existed in New York before George Pataki in 2003 issued an executive order requiring such identification. In 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer issued his own executive order reversing Pataki’s actions; a few months later, Spitzer backed away from the plan under mounting opposition, especially by county clerks who operate most DMV offices in the state.

The new legislation essentially expands the types of identification that would be acceptable at DMV offices in order to obtain a “standard” driver’s license. Such licenses do not include, for instance, commercial driver’s licenses nor are they able to be used for federal identification purposes, like gaining entry to a federal building; they are stamped “not for federal purposes." Additionally, people in the country illegally will not be able to obtain a REAL ID or enhanced New York driver’s license; such licenses will be required in order to fly within the United States starting October 2020.

People eligible for a standard driver’s license under the new law will not have to provide a Social Security number to a DMV office. Instead, they can provide a number of different forms of identification, including a valid – even if expired – foreign passport issued by the person’s country of citizenship or a valid, unexpired consulate identification document or a driver’s license from the person’s home country that is either valid or has been expired for less than 24 months.

County clerks who oppose the new law, however, say their staffs do not have the experience or time to be able to adequately check that foreign documents being presented for the purposes of getting a license are, indeed, valid or fake. Their critics say they already have to verify foreign documents for visa holders and other non-residents who can now legally obtain a license.

The bill does not, its sponsors say, provide a pathway to citizenship, meaning the act of obtaining a New York driver’s license will not give the person a new means to become a legal citizen of the United States. Foreigners in the country legally, such as through temporary work or education visas, can still, as now, obtain state driver’s licenses. Individuals covered by the new law will pay the same license fees as citizens and have the same insurance coverage requirements if they seek to register a vehicle.

As for insurance, one can get a driver’s license without obtaining insurance. If you try to register a vehicle, anyone needs proof of insurance.


From @mom23chiefs on Twitter: So the rest of us don’t have to provide any documentation for renewing/obtaining a license? Plus — doesn’t New York want to have auto-voter registration? How does this work for them? 

From Linda Ellis: When you go to vote, you show your driver’s license. Is there going to be some indication on the license issued to illegals marking them as noncitizens? So, now they can vote, too?

Precious: The issue of voting and potential voter fraud was a topic of much discussion among lawmakers during floor debates earlier this year, especially since backers say as many as 300,000 people are expected to take advantage of the new law. There is nothing on driver’s licenses to distinguish who is a citizen and, under the new law, who is not a citizen.

As such, critics say it will be easy, then, for non-citizens to register to vote.

But supporters counter that undocumented immigrants who try to vote would be breaking the law. “It is a federal crime … for somebody to cast a vote who is not allowed to. I assure you, there is not a single individual in the immigrant community who wants to put themselves at risk of deportation and would now seek to do that," said Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, a Bronx Democrat and sponsor of the bill, during the Assembly floor debate in June.

Supporters say the first question on a voter registration document at motor vehicle offices asks if the person is a citizen or not. Marcos acknowledged that “mistakes” could happen and a non-citizen could end up voting. “But the idea that this is a gateway to voter fraud is a complete exaggeration of the truth," he said.

New York State does not have “automatic” voter registration, meaning someone is automatically put onto the voter rolls – unless they proactively decline — when they do business with certain state agencies, such as getting a driver’s license. New York almost had such a law in June, but a strange typographic error in the bill forced lawmakers to withdraw the measure at the last moment – with a vow to try again in the 2020 session.


From Rich Purtell: I’m still digging for good data. Intuitively, if an undocumented resident has no license, we would expect him to drive without insurance. If he gets a license, will he get insurance? I want drivers on the road to be insured. There are plenty of licensed drivers with terrible driving skills. The license is mainly just another fee for the government. Are they significantly more likely to have insurance if they have a license? That’s the million-dollar question. Other states have already adopted policies like this. There ought to be research to see the results.

Precious: State law requires anyone registering a vehicle to have proof that the car or truck is insured. As to the question, there are various studies on this topic, though the findings can be subject to various interpretations. This question does need more research to fully answer.

The Buffalo News reached out to California. Since its license program began in January 2015, more than 1 million immigrants in the country illegally have obtained state driver’s licenses, according to the state’s motor vehicle office.

How many of those individuals obtained vehicle insurance? The motor vehicle office referred that question to the California insurance department, which did not respond to questions about the matter.

In New York, the new immigrant license law has not yet started – it isn’t scheduled to do so until the fall, and a new lawsuit brought by Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns, who believes the legislation is illegal, may delay that. So, the state DMV was asked about the current percentage of people – overall – with New York licenses who then also have some kind of vehicle insurance.

The answer: The DMV declined to comment at all about the issue.

A 2016 study by the Latino Policy Institute at the Roger Williams School of Law in Rhode Island looked at Utah’s experience in 2008 with an immigrant license law. It reported that 82% of people with a standard driver’s license were insured, compared with 76% of immigrants who get what the state calls a “driving privilege” card. [Rhode Island, despite numerous legislative attempts, has not legalized licenses for people in the country illegally. The 12 states that have, along with the District of Columbia, are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont and Washington.]

An early examination of the California experience, published in 2017 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, concluded that hit-and-run accidents likely declined because more unauthorized immigrants had obtained licenses and insurance. It could not, however, come up with a number for the amount possibly saved in overall insurance premiums.


From Daniel Zinkievich: Will they be subject to the same vehicle and traffic regulations as a legal citizen? I’m being serious. Say they are stopped and found to be driving under the influence of alcohol. Will they be arrested or let go, since apparently “no one is illegal”?

Precious:  Yes, an immigrant illegally in the country with such a driver’s license must follow all the same rules of the road as citizens. There had been an initial concern that the sharing of information about a unauthorized immigrant stopped for a traffic violation might be barred. Sponsors say they addressed that concern in the final draft, although some law enforcement groups remain adamantly opposed to the measure.

Backers say the names of people stopped by police on roadways can still be run through criminal databases – or a system that shares motor vehicle information with other states — to determine if they are wanted by law enforcement. However, the bill specifically bans the sharing of information about the license holder with federal immigration authorities unless there is a judicial warrant, subpoena or court order.

Cuomo has raised concerns that federal agencies could sue to obtain information about such immigrants' getting licenses in New York as a route to deport people. State Attorney General Letitia James said the bill was “well-crafted and contains ample protections for those who apply for driver’s licenses."


From Gary Borek: So what happens if an illegal alien drives to a state that doesn't recognize driver's licenses for illegal aliens? Do they get arrested and deported? Or does Cuomo's taxpayer-funded illegal alien defense fund get them a lawyer?

Precious: An immigrant with such a New York license who gets stopped in another state is subject to having a search of their driving records or whether they are the subjects of any warrants, just as a U.S. citizen would be. However, according to the office of Senator Luis Sepulveda, a Bronx Democrat and sponsor of the bill in the Senate, there would be nothing in those records identifying whether that individual – either on the actual driver’s license itself or in the search of records – is a citizen or non-citizen.


From Ralph Hayden: So, will New York State now print the driver's test in 25 different languages? According to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, the state’s written test for a learner’s permit is available in 14 languages. They are: Arabic, Bengali, Bosnian, Chinese, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Nepali, Polish, Russian and Spanish.

There was legislation this past session to add Punjabi and Hindi to the list of languages for the exams offered in New York City; it died. There was also legislation to make English the official language in New York State; it failed.

From Marybelle De Wandler: Unbelievable. How do we know they know the rules and regulations here?

Precious:  Applicants would be required to first pass a written exam in order to obtain a learner’s permit – prior to taking a road test. The written exam covers everything from rules of sharing roads to learning the best method for how to handle a skid.


From Paul Sickau: Is this just about more money for New York State?

Precious:  The issue is far more than being “just about more money” for the state’s coffers. Having said that, revenues – not just for the state – were a selling point by some advocates during the successful push this year to get the bill passed.

Backers say the state will receive more than $50 million annually in DMV fees and tax payments from immigrants in the country illegally who get licenses or register vehicles. Keep in perspective: The state budget this year will spend more than $170 billion from all sources of revenues.

A number of insurance groups supported the bill; they stand to benefit from such license holders who buy cars and then insure them. Lawmakers also said car sellers will gain financially by undocumented buyers' not being afraid to openly purchase autos. By one estimate, offered by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, 97,000 cars will be purchased by such buyers.


From Bob Kuhn: Once they have a license, aren't they "documented"?

Precious: They would certainly have a document called a New York driver’s license, assuming they pass a written and road test. They would still be, depending on one’s position in the debate: an “illegal alien,” an “undocumented immigrant” or, maybe, just immigrants living in the United States illegally under federal immigration statutes.

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