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As border backup disaster looms, politicians bicker over Green Light Law

A slow-moving disaster is set to unfold along the U.S.-Canadian border in the wake of a new Trump administration policy that will, over five years, block all New Yorkers from using trusted traveler programs that have eased cross-border journeys for years.

At least that's what people who know the border well think.

"It's literally a killer for the border," Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority, said of the new Department of Homeland Security policy.

"It is a manifestation of a petty argument between our governor and the president that's going to impact trade, it's going to impact our financial economy, the flow of people across the border," said Dottie Gallagher, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

"Make no mistake, the White House actions will directly and indirectly hurt all of us," said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat whose district includes the Peace Bridge.

Those were commonplace reactions Thursday, a day after acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf announced on Fox News that his agency would no longer accept new applications or renewals from New Yorkers for several of the government's trusted traveler programs.

That move reignited a debate that the State Legislature thought it settled last June. Then, over Republican objections, the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed the so-called Green Light Law, aimed at allowing undocumented immigrants to register for driver's licenses.

To entice those people to do so, the law includes a provision that bars the federal government from access to New York Department of Motor Vehicles records.

And that, the Trump administration said, poses a grave national security risk, in that it prevents federal authorities from properly vetting applicants for trusted traveler programs.

"This act and the corresponding lack of security cooperation from the New York DMV requires DHS to take immediate action to ensure DHS's efforts to protect the homeland are not compromised," Wolf said in a letter to state officials.

The impact

The Trump administration's decision means that any New Yorker holding a NEXUS card – which allows quicker access across the Canadian border – will lose that access when the card expires. It also means that New Yorkers enrolled in Global Entry, which eases the customs process for international air travelers, will no longer be able to enjoy that program's benefits once their current cards run out.

The Department of Homeland Security won't take new applications for those programs, either.

Rep. Tom Reed. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Given that NEXUS and Global Entry cards last five years, the impact of the Trump administration policy will roll out slowly over time.

But even the effects in the near future will be dramatic. About 175,000 New Yorkers will be cut off from federal trusted traveler programs this year, and upwards of 80,000 new applications from state residents will go nowhere.

"So this will have an immediate impact on New York residents," a Trump administration official said Thursday.

About 25% of the current passenger traffic crossing the Peace Bridge utilizes the NEXUS program, said Rienas of the Peace Bridge Authority. If the Trump administration policy moves forward, Rienas said, that percentage will dwindle over time – and crossing the border will become more time-consuming and daunting.

And that could have a devastating impact on the Western New York economy, Higgins said.

"This policy ... threatens the future viability of Western New York’s commerce, auto manufacturing, health care and cultural economies that are highly dependent of predictable and efficient access to and from Southern Ontario," Higgins said.

One reason for that is that the Trump administration policy also applies to the FAST program, a trusted traveler program for truck drivers.

"I might even be able to argue that this is even more critical in our region for getting the trucks across the border," said Craig W. Turner, president of World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara.

'Ridiculous policies'

The new DHS policy left critics of the Green Light Law saying, in essence, "I told you so."

“From day one I have objected to the constitutionality of the Green Light Law, specifically those provisions which are contrary to the federal government’s exclusive jurisdiction over immigration policy and prevent law enforcement officials from fulfilling their duties,” said Erie County Clerk Michael P. Kearns, a Democrat who won election on the Republican line.

Kearns said the State Legislature should reconsider the Green Light Law, and Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, agreed.

"This is yet another result of one-party extremists in Albany control hurting New Yorkers, and we warned of this impending outcome two weeks ago," said Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican from Corning who said last month that the Green Light Law might cause the Trump administration to react. "Albany must repeal the Green Light Law before the federal government is forced to take further action.”

And further action is possible. Asked why the DHS decision did not affect TSA PreCheck, the popular program for going through security more quickly before domestic flights, the Trump administration official said: "PreCheck is not currently on the list (of affected programs), but that is all I'll say about that. It doesn't mean it can't be in the future."

None of this would have happened if state Democrats hadn't insisted on catering to downstate political interests rather than upstate realities, said State Sen. Mike Ranzenhofer, an Amherst Republican.

“This is not on the federal government; this is on New York State enacting ridiculous policies," Ranzenhofer said. “My constituents are outraged. They’re inconvenienced and they’re pissed."

'Pure politics'

New York Democrats are outraged, too – at the Trump administration. And the outrage starts with the man at the top, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who supports the Green Light Law.

“This is unbounded arrogance, disrespect of the rule of law, hyperpolitical government and this is another form of extortion," Cuomo said on a WAMC public radio interview Thursday morning.

Cuomo downplayed the federal government's national security concerns, saying it's "ludicrous" to think that undocumented immigrants would schedule interviews with federal agents in order to get a trusted traveler card.

“It is pure politics," Cuomo said of the federal homeland security move.

State Attorney General Letitia James noted that 13 other states have laws similar to New York's Green Light measure. That being the case, she questioned why the Trump administration had decided to single out New York.

"We will resist efforts that target New Yorkers and cut off our access to Global Entry or any other trusted traveler program," James said. "As the state’s attorney and chief law enforcement officer, I will continue to vigorously defend New York laws and our state’s residents against the president’s vindictive actions. New Yorkers will not be targeted or bullied by an authoritarian thug.”

While both the Cuomo administration and James suggested that the Trump administration's move may result in legal action, Higgins raised a possibility that has yet to get any traction in Albany.

"We are calling on the state and federal governments to negotiate in good faith to allow for a return to reliable border operations," Higgins said.

More likely, though, the sudden controversy over the new federal policy will end up in court, said Buffalo immigration attorney Rosanna Berardi. She noted that many of Trump's controversial immigration policies have led to legal action that in most cases ended in the president's favor – and for a reason.

"It'll get tangled up in the court system, but ultimately we've seen time and time again for the last three and a half years, that it is loudly and clearly stated in the U.S. Constitution that the president has authority over U.S. immigration matters," Berardi said.

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