ALBANY – A dozen years ago, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer launched an effort to let undocumented immigrants obtain New York driver's licenses.
Spitzer, who had sour relations with the Legislature at the time, took a do-it-myself approach to push the license plan – an effort that sputtered and died within a couple of months in the face of sharp opposition from many lawmakers, local government officials and the public.
Now the issue is back at the Capitol.
“We expect both houses will finally act this year and Gov. (Andrew M.) Cuomo will sign this important legislation into law,’’ said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.
There are some key differences between the 2007 driver's license push, when Spitzer tried and failed to get traction on the issue, and this year’s legislative session in Albany. Those differences, combined, are encouraging supporters of the license effort.
This time, it’s the Legislature leading the charge and supporters are increasingly confident that some time this year more than 200,000 people in the state illegally will get to take a test to get a state driver's license.
Cuomo says he will sign the license bill if the Legislature passes it, though he is not expending much public energy to make it happen relative to other issues he has wanted this session.
On the micro level, Albany is now ruled entirely by Democrats after the party won control of the State Senate in last fall’s elections.
Liberal Democrats have been flexing their political muscles throughout the session, and for many Democrats in the Legislature the driver's license bill is just another box to be checked as “done” before the 2019 session ends June 18. That some relatively moderate Democrats – especially from New York City whose delegation dominates the State Legislature – may face intra-party primary contests next year from their political left is also helping to propel the license legislation.
On a more macro level, Democrats say they want to show New York stands with immigrants, even undocumented ones, at a time when immigration policies on a national level have become even more polarized than usual.
But there’s also another key difference from 12 years ago: the strategy for victory.
A dozen years ago, Spitzer heavily promoted his driver's license plan as a social justice matter. It was a way to help bring undocumented immigrants, who were already living and working across the state, “out of the shadows.”
Today, advocates are hewing to more meat-and-potatoes arguments. It would be good for all drivers if undocumented immigrants were able to get licenses, they contend. Such people would have to pass written and road tests they do not now take if they are driving illegally. They would become safer drivers making for safer roads. They would be able to get car insurance, thereby cutting down on uninsured driver incidents, thereby benefiting premiums for drivers now on the road legally, the arguments go.
These immigrants, advocates say, would also pay millions of dollars a year in license fees. Moreover, these undocumented immigrants are already here so why not help them, especially in more rural areas of the state, be able to travel from their place of employment – be it a farm or restaurant or other such establishment – to their home or to shop or pick up kids at school?
“I think if people understood the benefits of doing the driver’s license bill people would be much more understanding and open to it,’’ Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said last week after his Democratic colleagues held what he called a “robust” closed-door discussion on the issue.
While one recent poll found six in 10 New Yorkers opposed to granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, Heastie said most of his Assembly Democratic colleagues support the idea. However, he believes there should be time taken to try to better educate the public about the issue. “We do want to spend a little more time messaging and educating,’’ he said.
How much time and can such messaging be done before the Legislature ends its 2019 session in June, if there is to be a vote? “That’s up in the air,’’ said Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat who supports the measure. “I don’t know how much time it takes to educate people on this issue.’’
The lawmaker said the issue is especially important for sectors like the Western New York agriculture industry. “In terms of the general population, we seem to be so anti-immigrant. I personally believe, however, that this is a public safety issue. We should not have people driving around without the proper licenses, which we do because there isn’t bus transportation to the local farms,’’ Peoples-Stokes said.
A do-over fight
Groups pressing for the driver's license bill are far more organized than 12 years ago, using rallies at the Capitol, social media and grassroots efforts to press the measure into law.
Twelve years ago, Spitzer announced he was un-doing a 2001 order by then-Gov. George Pataki, whose administration in 2001 began ending the practice where the state would give driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. Though there is a common misperception that Pataki ordered the change after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Jackie Vimo, an immigration rights advocate, recalled that the shift in policy occurred several days before the World Trade Center attacks.
Prior to the Pataki-era change, undocumented immigrants could go to a DMV office, present a letter stating that they were ineligible to receive a Social Security card and then be permitted to apply for a New York driver's license. At the time in 2001, Vimo – now a policy analyst with the National Immigration Law Center in Washington – estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants held driver's licenses in the state.
In 2007, Spitzer ran into a political wall with his license plan. He found his most vocal opponents in a group unaccustomed to getting news headlines: county clerks.
There was then-Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, now the state’s lieutenant governor, who in 2007 threatened to turn over to federal border security officers the names of any undocumented immigrants who sought a driver's license in one of her DMV offices in the county.
“She took a real brave stance then,’’ recalled Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola, a Republican, who himself gained national publicity for standing up to Spitzer’s idea.
Hochul’s 2007 position lingers as a sore spot among some Democrats even today. Hochul’s name came up, not positively, among Assembly Democrats during their closed-door conference meeting last week at the Capitol.
Peoples-Stokes declined to comment on private Democratic conferences, but said Hochul’s position has evolved. The lieutenant governor acknowledged her change in position last year when she was running for re-election as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor. Once adamantly opposed, she now supports licenses for undocumented immigrants, though she has not taken a stance on specific proposals under consideration at the Capitol.
“People can change their minds about things,’’ said Peoples-Stokes, a strong ally of Hochul.
Of New Yorkers now opposed to the idea, the lawmaker said: “If they were given the same educational opportunities that the lieutenant governor had, maybe their perspective will change, too.’’
County clerks push back
The Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, earlier this year estimated that 265,000 undocumented immigrants in New York would obtain driver's licenses if the law is changed. It said 64,000 of those are located north of New York City, including 2,500 from the Buffalo area. It said the state and counties could see $57 million in higher fee revenues if undocumented immigrants are permitted to legally drive.
Today, county clerks, who run most of the state’s DMV offices, say they are ready to do battle again. “A majority of county clerks are dead set against the idea of giving someone in this country illegally a driver's license,’’ said Merola, who was the most vocal local government opponent to Spitzer’s plan back in 2007.
“It’s a privilege. There’s no right to having a driver's license,’’ he added.
Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns, a former state assemblyman, raised a host of concerns about the issue. He said federal law already has a 2020 deadline for final compliance by states with the federal REAL ID law, which sets minimum security standards for state driver's licenses. He said letting undocumented immigrants get licenses in New York with less stringent identification would be, at least, unfair compared with identification required for citizens seeking a license.
Kearns said he fears additional fraud with less strict identification requirements for licenses, which he called a “gateway ID” for other forms of identification.
The Erie County clerk said he has already met with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on the possibility the driver's license law will be changed. Kearns, whose office runs all the auto registration and licensing bureaus in the county, is drawing a line in the sand.
“We’re not going to do it in Erie County. I will not process any driver's licenses for illegal aliens whatsoever. Period,’’ he said.
Merola says he believes the real push by license supporters is to make it easier for undocumented immigrants to be able to vote. “It’s always been about the voting process,’’ he said, saying that any legislation that might pass should at least place a stamp saying “undocumented” on licenses given to undocumented immigrants. “Why should their license look identical to mine?’’ he said.
Vimo, the Washington-based immigration advocate who previously had been advocacy director at the New York Immigration Coalition, one of the main groups pushing the license plan in the 2019 legislative session, said such claims about voting concerns are silly. “It’s a fake issue,’’ she said. She noted green card holders, who number in the tens of thousands in New York, are not eligible to vote but still can get a state driver's license.
Vimo said the immigrant driver's license issue is especially important upstate, where job opportunities have taken undocumented immigrants. “There is a misperception that this is a New York City issue, when in reality it’s largely coming from rural and agricultural parts of the state that don’t have the transportation infrastructure,’’ she said. “It’s an upstate issue. It’s a Western New York issue.’’
Now, she said, such immigrants either drive without a license – and risk getting arrested or deported – or just don’t drive “and living completely unable to take care of basic necessities.’’
Senate a question mark
Twelve states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, permit undocumented immigrants to get licenses. They do so, however, in vastly different ways, from two-tiered systems in some cases to making it be only used for driving and not, for instance, as identification to get into federal buildings.
In the State Senate, the idea has not yet been discussed in conference among Democratic lawmakers, said Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
There are questions whether some relatively new Democrats from the New York City suburbs could be politically dented if they support the idea. Questions, too, have been raised about whether the few upstate Senate Democrats can vote for it, though Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat, said last week he supports letting undocumented immigrants get driver's licenses.
Immigration groups are trying to boost pressure on Cuomo to take a more active role in the issue. Vimo said the Democratic Party will be tested on the license bill if leaders do not back their rank-and-file and press the measure to passage.
“They will be mistaken if they take immigrant support for granted if they don’t take action on immigrant issues,’’ she said. “We certainly know Governor Cuomo has not been vocally out front supportive of the license policy … A lot of people are looking for him to take leadership on this issue and letting it die quietly is not going to go unnoticed.’’
The legislation, called the “Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act,’’ also includes certain prohibitions about the sharing of information about undocumented immigrants by DMV offices with law enforcement.
Sen. Luis Sepulveda, a Bronx Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said that the remaining obstacles to passage are “some members in the Senate in more conservative areas who have concerns about the politics of the bill. They’re concerned that this could be troublesome for them for re-election.’’ He would not provide a count of how many Democrats support the bill in the 63-member chamber, but said opposition has been relaxed in recent weeks as senators learn more about the bill.
“I think momentum has shifted in our favor,’’ Sepulveda said.
The senator said most specious among criticisms is that the licenses will become a path to citizenship or will be able to be used to enter federal buildings or commercial air carriers; none of that can happen under the bill, he said.
“Undocumented immigrants are going to drive on the streets no matter what. If they’re going to drive, let’s create an environment where the public is safe. This legislation is going to make our streets and roads safer,’’ he said.