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Trump administration to intervene in Kearns' driver's license lawsuit

Trump administration to intervene in Kearns' driver's license lawsuit

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local Mickey Kearns Cantillon                                features People Talk Cantillon

Groups ranging from New York’s Conservative Party to a coalition of seven states and Washington, D.C., are taking sides in Erie County Clerk Michael P. Kearns’ federal lawsuit against the state law letting undocumented immigrants get driver’s licenses. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Erie County Clerk Michael P. Kearns may have an important new ally in his legal fight against New York's Green Light Law – the Trump administration.

A lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice, in an email to Kearns' lawyers, said the department intends to intervene in his lawsuit opposing driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.

The email, which came from an assistant U.S. attorney in Buffalo, stops short of indicating what the Department of Justice's position will be, but makes it clear the matter will handled by lawyers in Washington, D.C.

Even before he took office, President Trump promised a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, and Kearns is hoping that pledge translates into support for his lawsuit against New York State.

At the heart of the suit is the allegation that the state law is at odds with federal immigration law and puts county clerks – the public officials who issue licenses – in the middle of it all.

Kearns, in a statement Friday, said he is encouraged by the Department of Justice's involvement in the suit.

"From day one I have been adamant that my opposition to this legislation is based on the law and their intervention provides further confirmation that the Green Light Law suffers from questions of its constitutionality,” he said.

The Trump administration is not the only party interested in Kearns v. Cuomo, the three-month old challenge to the new law.

Led by the attorney general in Connecticut, a coalition of seven states filed a friend of the court brief suggesting New York's law makes sense if you're worried about public health and safety.

The states believe the law will result in safer drivers, fewer accidents and more insured people.

"It was also a good public policy decision, an effective strategy to vindicate New York's explicit and unimpeachable objective of keeping its residents healthy and safe," William Tong, Connecticut's attorney general, said in a court brief.

Tong was writing on behalf of attorneys general in states – California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland and Nevada – that allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver's licenses and who see it as essential to improving traffic safety in their states.

The states also defended New York's "sovereign" right to adopt the new law and pointed to the traditional role of states in public safety matters.

The state's Conservative Party sees it differently.

The party claims the new law conflicts with federal immigration law and puts Kearns and other county clerks in an "impossible position."

"If he implements the Green Light Law, he risks prosecution under a federal statute that makes it a crime to conceal, harbor or shield from detection an individual living illegally in the United States," the party said in court papers. "If he fails to implement the Green Light law, he risks retaliation by defendants, including removal from office."

The defendants in the suit are Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York State.

One of the other organizations weighing in on the suit, the Rural & Migrant Ministry – a group advocating for migrant communities across the state – pointed to an undocumented farm worker in Niagara County to make its case for licensing.

To see his children, who are U.S. citizens and live 25 miles away, the unnamed farm worker can either drive illegally or spend $25 to $40 for private transportation, the group said in its brief to the court.

"Obtaining a license would allow him to drive to his children's home legally, without fear of a police interaction resulting in his deportation, and then take them shopping or to doctors' appointments," the Poughkeepsie-based group said in its court brief.

The Ministry said there are 750,000 undocumented immigrants in New York State old enough to drive.

In its brief to the court, the New York Civil Liberties Union pointed to the benefits of those people driving legally and suggested Kearns and others are trying to "undermine" the new law.

The group thinks the opposition's goal is to turn a law that benefits undocumented immigrants into one that targets them for deportation.

"It would effectively enlist state officials in federal immigration enforcement over the objection of the state," the group said in its court brief.

An early opponent of the Green Light Law, Kearns thinks it provides privileges to people who broke the law while entering the United States. Other critics have pointed to the potential for voter fraud because of the ties between driver's licenses and voter registration.

In his lawsuit, he asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction stopping the state from enforcing the law, but so far U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Wolford has stopped short of issuing one.

Kearns claims the "supremacy clause" in the Constitution – the clause stating that federal law is the supreme law of the land – ensures that federal law preempts state law when they conflict.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James is defending the state and has said the new law, scheduled to take effect in December, is constitutional.

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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