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Trump administration calls parts of New York's Green Light law 'legally suspect'

ALBANY – The U.S. Justice Department is seeking to protect the federal government’s ability to obtain motor vehicle records from New York State once a new law kicks in next week granting the ability for migrants in the country illegally to get driver’s licenses.

The Justice Department said provisions of the state's “Green Light” law are “legally suspect” because they seek to block the federal government’s authority to enforce federal immigration laws.

The federal government is not taking a stance on several threshold issues brought by Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola – including whether he has standing to bring his case to halt the new law from taking effect next week.

But lawyers with the Justice Department’s civil division in Washington, in a legal filing Thursday, said the law set to take effect Dec. 14 goes too far in limiting the ability of federal officials to obtain immigration status about individuals with driver’s licenses in New York.

New York State, the defendant in the case, argues that two federal information-gathering statutes are unconstitutional. The state and federal governments are squaring off over the so-called Green Light driver's license law, which sets up roadblocks for U.S. immigration and customs agents to obtain information about license holders and applicants in New York.

The Justice Department, in its filing with the U.S. District Court in Northern New York, said the federal laws regarding access to state records “are nothing more than information-sharing provisions" that prevent state and local governments from hindering the enforcement of federal immigration laws.

The New York law giving licenses to migrants in the country illegally says the DMV will not disclose information about license applicants or holders – without a judicial order – if the requests are for “civil immigration purposes.”

Moreover, the person whose records are being sought will be given notice by the state DMV within three days about the records request by federal agents.

The Justice Department called the three-day notification requirement “extraordinarily broad.’’

“The act thus seems to require New York officials to provide notification to the subjects of requests from federal immigration authorities even when, for example, providing such notification would endanger the lives of law enforcement personnel or the public,’’ the Justice Department wrote.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose office is representing the state in the matter, declined to comment.

The Merola lawsuit was a parallel case to one also submitted by Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns; the Kearns case was tossed out last month by a federal judge who said the Erie County Democrat did not have legal standing to bring the case. Merola led the charge by county clerks against a 2007 effort by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer to let such migrants obtain licenses.

On Thursday, Kearns said the state DMV has started installing devices in Erie County auto bureaus that the state says will detect fraudulent documents – including foreign passports – that might be used by people obtaining licenses under the Green Light law. Kearns said federal officials have advised him that such claims by the state about the devices’ effectiveness “are false.’’

Kearns, in response, said he is ordering signs be placed in the auto bureaus with information about confidential tip lines to U.S. Homeland Security officials “so taxpayers can fight back against policies that promote criminal activity.’’

Erie County clerk will appeal Green Light law defeat

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