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Dispute with Washington threatens region's economy

You can blame Washington or you can blame Albany, but one thing is certain: Western New York’s border with Canada cannot be made to bear the brunt of their squabble. It’s an economic killer.

That’s not just a threat to this region, but a reality as the Trump administration has cut off applications for “trusted traveler” programs that speed cross-border traffic here. The abrupt change, announced Thursday, stems from a dispute over New York’s Green Light Law, which allows immigrants here illegally to obtain a driver’s license.

Programs such as NEXUS and Global Entry allow travelers to clear Customs more quickly based on rigorous background checks that verify a level of trustworthiness. NEXUS is especially important in Western New York. Under that program, drivers crossing between the United States and Canada not only move more quickly across the border, but often have the use of NEXUS-only lanes. In Niagara County, the Whirlpool Bridge may be used only by NEXUS pass holders.

Backers of the 2019 Green Light Law say the administration’s action is nothing more than political retribution. President Trump, they say, has not much residual affection for the state where he made his name and which is home to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a prominent proponent of his removal from office via impeachment. Some suspect that Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, is pushing the policy change. Reed, by his own acknowledgement, is considering a run for governor in 2022.

Critics say the law is improper, flawed and even dangerous. Among its defects, the Trump administration says, is its denial of routine access to records of the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

The Trump administration says that undercuts Homeland Security’s ability to vet applicants for the trusted traveler programs, though it seems odd that the sprawling federal government would have no other way to find the information it wants. Even if it doesn’t, vetting applicants should have nothing to do with inconveniencing those who are simply renewing their status. They’ve already been vetted.

Regardless, the administration’s response could damage the economy on both side of the border. It will disrupt the travels of 175,000 New Yorkers this year, alone, and that’s just in renewals; it doesn’t count those cut off from making their first application. It can’t be allowed to stand.

Business leaders were quick to condemn the standoff.

“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.

Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority, was offered a similarly dark view. “It’s literally a killer for the border,” he said.

Observers see only three ways to resolve the question: Either the state accedes to the Trump administration; the Trump administration relents; or the dispute ends up in court. That could also work to the Trump administration’s benefit, said Buffalo immigration attorney Rosanna Berardi.

While many of the president’s immigration policies have wound up in court, she said, the rulings have “loudly and clearly stated” that authority over immigration is rooted in the Constitution and, with that, the president.

Still, there are distinctions that both liberals and conservatives – if they are honest – should be able to agree upon. They revolve around whether there is a legitimate federal interest in New York’s Green Light Law and, related to that, if the administration actually applies the same standard to states with similar programs.

If, in fact, the law creates the grave risk to national security that the administration claims, then Albany needs to acknowledge that. It should ask the Department of Homeland Security to document it. Liberals should be interested in safe borders as much as conservatives.

If it doesn’t – if the administration is simply throwing its weight around to bully New York over a law it doesn’t like – then conservatives have a stake in drawing a line. Under those circumstances, the administration is violating the core conservative concept of federalism, which gives states rights not specifically ascribed to Washington. In that case, all voters here would have cause to be angry.

Drivers licenses are state issues; border security is Washington’s. Their fight is going to hurt Western New York.

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