Immigrants living here illegally who apply for a learner's permit toward a driver's license starting Monday shouldn't expect to walk out of an Erie County auto bureau with one.
Erie County Clerk Michael "Mickey" Kearns, a vocal opponent of the state's new Green Light Law, said he may take and hang onto any foreign documents presented as proofs of ID until he feels they have been sufficiently authenticated.
It's also possible, he said, that he may forward the foreign documents to Albany and ask the state to authenticate them, even though the state has said it's the responsibility of the County Clerk's Office to undertake this work.
"Under the statute, I can hold documents for a limited period of time," Kearns said. "This is not something new."
Kearns has repeatedly said that he would not issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants under any circumstances.
But now, with Kearns in the crosshairs of immigrant advocacy organizations, Kearns refrained from saying that Thursday. The organizations have threatened to sue any county clerk who fails to comply with the Green Light law.
"It’s a waiting game on what the next steps are going to be," Kearns said. "I do not want to be sued."
Meanwhile, Niagara County Clerk Joseph Jastrzemski said Thursday he is still deciding what his office will do. He pointed out that many clerks across the state have been troubled by what he called the limited and rushed instructions provided by the state, which started just last week.
Jastrzemski is chairman of the 10-county Western Region of County Clerks, part of the state clerk's association.
"If you call any one of them, they’ll tell you they have concerns with it," he said of the other county clerks.
Members of the Association of County Clerks are preparing to call on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Mark Schroeder to delay implementation of the Green Light law until Oct. 1, 2020, when the more stringent REAL ID law takes effect.
The state presented two one-hour webinars and a half-hour follow-up Q&A on dealing with the applications, Jastrzemski said. He called them "terrible."
"I don’t quite see the need to do something so quickly and not talk about what we see each and every day as county clerks," he said.
The Green Light law requires immigrants living in the state illegally to provide six points worth of identification. Valid, unexpired foreign passports and foreign driver's licenses that have been expired less than 24 months, and consular cards issued by any country's consulate, are each worth four points.
Foreign school report cards are worth one or two points, depending on whether they include a photo.
"This is cheapening the New York State driver’s license," Kearns said. "Do you know how easy it is to generate a report card? I’ll make you one."
Other new forms of identification are allowed to help establish age or residency, include U.S.-issued border crossing cards, municipal ID cards, court and tax documents, and resident and employment authorization cards expired less than 24 months.
To help auto bureaus and Department of Motor Vehicle offices authenticate documents, the state is providing devices that can scan and validate documents that carry standard security features, including passports, driver's licenses and consular cards.
Kearns and others expressed alarm at several provisions of the Green Light law:
- If documents are presented in a foreign language, they must be translated word for word and certified as accurate, but no standards exist for anyone doing the translating.
- The law forbids any DMV staffer from interfering with a voter application, regardless of whether the staffer happens to know if someone is not a legal U.S. resident. Green Light law opponents continue to express concern the law may result in more non-U.S. citizens deliberately or mistakenly claiming citizenship and being registered to vote.
- Beginning in October, anyone wishing to fly on a commercial plane or enter certain federal buildings must show a REAL ID or higher level of identification. But for the 10 months until then, immigrants who are here illegally and have a driver's license will have the same rights to air travel.
- The authentication device provided by the state cannot authenticate all foreign documents that are used to establish identity and residency, and Clerk's Office staff are not trained to recognize all forms of foreign document authenticity.
In the past, local DMV offices could send foreign documents to the state for authentication assistance, Kearns said. The state could then work with the U.S. State Department to verify documents. But since the Green Light law prevents the saving or sharing of these documents with the federal government, he said, that service is no longer offered for anyone seeking to obtain a standard state license.
The Green Light law forbids clerks from saving or retaining any submitted documents used to obtain a driver's license, but Kearns quoted a provision in the law makes an exception "for a limited period necessary to ensure the validity and authenticity of such documents."
If an undocumented immigrant chooses to use an Erie County auto bureau to obtain a learner's permit or license and DMV officials in Albany were to authenticate the documents, would Kearns agree to issue the license?
"We don't know yet," said Kearns, who has been meeting with county attorneys.
Erie County Attorney Michael Siragusa declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation over the Green Light Law.
Kearns said he is aware he could be sued personally, and that Erie County could be sued, if he fails comply with the new law. No one who comes to a county auto bureau with foreign documentation will be turned away, he said, despite his continued, vocal opposition to the law.
"This has been a top-down policy from Albany saying shove it, take it, like it," he said.