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Immigration groups wary of county clerks who may not enforce Green Light law

ALBANY – Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns met with county lawyers Wednesday to present his “plan of action” for implementing – or not – a new state law requiring motor vehicle offices to begin granting driver’s licenses to migrants living in the country illegally.

The Democratic county clerk, who believes the law is illegal, would not discuss details of his plan, except that, at a minimum, he personally will have to approve any application made by migrants under terms of the new law.

That could pose a delay for migrants. At the same time, it could make Kearns a legal target for immigration rights groups that are developing potential litigation against county clerks who seek to place roadblocks to migrants seeking licenses.

Kearns, who brought a failed lawsuit to try to block the new “Green Light” law and vowed in June not to issue licenses to such migrants, bristled when a reporter said he appears ready to implement the law when it takes effect in several days.

“I didn’t say that," Kearns said Tuesday a day before his meetings with county lawyers. “I’m not making any comment on what I’m going to do." He said his office is still studying the issue but that the chief problem remains how to authenticate foreign-issued documents that migrants will be able to use as identification to obtain a license.

Kearns added that the state should delay the initiative because it has failed to fully train DMV front-line workers on how to authenticate foreign-issued documents that now can be used as identification by migrants to obtain licenses.

Such talk is why immigration and legal groups are holding meetings at a feverish pace in recent days to discuss legal strategies against any county clerk that might not enforce the law to its full letter and spirit. Kearns is among those in their main sights.

“This is the law of the land. County clerks are sworn to uphold the law of the land," said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, a Manhattan-based advocacy group that also has offices in Buffalo.

The head of the group influential in getting the Green Light law approved this year said Kearns has been engaged in “cheap political posturing” with some of his statements and threats about the statute.

“We’re seeing a lot of smoke. Come Monday, we’ll see if there’s fire. If there’s fire, we need to put it out with as many different methods as possible," said Choi, whose Buffalo office provides a range of immigration and refugee services in the region.

Migrants in the country illegally who reside in New York and wish to get a driver’s license will be able to do so without having to provide a Social Security number. Other documents, such as a valid foreign passport, will be accepted as proof of identification, according to the law.

A federal judge is expected to rule this week on a case brought by Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola, a longtime critic of letting such migrants receive driver’s licenses. A different judge recently tossed out a parallel case brought by Kearns.

Backers of the law call the matter a human rights issue, saying that such migrants – who already live and work in the community – were denied licenses to be able to legally drive to work or health appointments or to pick up their children at school. They say the law will bring in revenues to the state in the form of more DMV fees and will improve problems of such migrants not getting vehicle insurance for cars they already are driving.

New York became the 13th state to OK such a driver’s license law; it previously allowed licenses to be given to migrants in the country illegally before it was halted by then-Gov. George Pataki in 2001.

Opponents say the state is rewarding illegal acts – moving to the United States without proper documentation – and that it will be easier to forge foreign papers that can be used by people to secure a license.

The New York Immigration Coalition is an umbrella group representing more than 200 immigrant and refugee rights organizations in the state. Its board is composed of people from immigration, academic and union circles, and it gets about a third of its annual funding from state and New York City grants, according to a recent tax filing. It spent about $264,000 between January and June on state-related lobbying and ad campaigns to influence Albany on a host of matters, including the Green Light law, according to its lobbying filings with the state.

Now, with the law set to be implemented, the immigration rights community is looking at possible court actions against county clerks – who are in charge of many DMV offices in upstate counties – if the new law is not enforced.

On Tuesday, Kearns said he might withhold DMV money his office shares with the state – about $12 million annually – to help fund the added costs associated with new hires or training that might be needed to verify applicant’s information.

[Related: Erie County clerk to replace 'see something, say something' signs in auto bureaus]

Kearns said it could pose a safety risk to expect front-line workers without the proper training or tools to adequately determine if a foreign documented presented for identification is real.

“I’m going to make the final decision on all these applications," he said of any migrants seeking to get a license under the law.

While the law kicks in Saturday, Kearns said the state has notified him that it will not be enforced until after some of his auto bureaus with Saturday hours close for the day. That makes Monday the official start of the Green Light law.

“This is, to me, not a political issue; this is a constitutional issue, and I believe I will be harboring, concealing and shielding people who are here illegally, and I believe this is information the federal government should have," he said of a provision that forbids license information sharing with U.S. immigration officials.

Choi said he believes the majority of DMV offices in New York will uphold the law, but there are concerns about Kearns and a number of other clerks who oppose the law.

“Our message to the others is, ‘You are an officer sworn to uphold the law of the land and the law of the land is this driver’s license legislation that passed. You don’t get to pick and choose what laws to uphold,’ " he said.

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