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Republicans Introduce Bill To Protect County Clerks Under Green Light Law

WAMC Photo by Dave Lucas

A controversial bill in the New York state legislature to allow undocumented immigrants to seek a driver’s license is gaining momentum. While Republicans remain opposed to the measure, some upstate Democrats say their concerns are being addressed.

The so-called Green Light bill would allow undocumented immigrants to seek a driver’s license. But in 2019, much like in 2007 when it was first introduced, county clerks are speaking out against the bill.

Saratoga County Clerk Craig Hayner spoke at a press conference organized last month by Republican Halfmoon State Senator Daphne Jordan.

“I cannot support any legislation that jeopardizes public security and traffic safety, and violates our constitution,” said Hayner.

Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola also appeared at that press conference.

“I’ve been there 30 years I’ve never given a driver’s license to someone who is here illegally and I’ll continue to keep that up. And I also said I may just get a banner, put across the front of the building that we will have ICE on speed dial,” said Merola.

Concerned with the prospect of an undocumented individual issued a driver’s being able to gain the right to vote, Merola suggested a different style of license.

“It’s not a right, it’s a privilege to have a driver’s license. But if they wanted to give them a driver’s license, make it different than the one they give me…” said Merola.

Some clerks, like Merola and Hayner, contend they have a duty to prevent people without the proper documentation from seeking a license, no matter what the reason.

Republican State Senator James Tedisco of Glenville has introduced a bill that would protect county clerks if they refuse to issue a license under a Green Light law.

“You’re going to see a lot of county clerks in court and have a lot of duly elected county clerks elected by their constituents removed from office if my bill doesn’t pass and their bill does,” said Tedisco.

Tedisco’s bill is also supported by Senator Jordan, Republican State Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh of Ballston, and a handful of former and current county clerks, including Hayner.

They worry it would create a double standard for American citizens seeking a license. They ask: why should a citizen be required to show a Social Security number and other forms of identification, if a non-citizen isn’t?

Language in the bill says that a passport or government identification document issued in a foreign country can be admitted as at least one form of proof of identify, and that if an applicant is required to provide a Social Security number, they may have the option of signing an affidavit stating that they have not been issued one.

Democratic State Assemblywoman Pat Fahy of Albany said she met with the bill’s sponsor in the Assembly, a Bronx Democrat. She says her concerns shared with other upstate colleagues and local enforcement are being addressed.

“Green Light, there’s a number of changes that I feel a lot better about. We’ve been having a number of meetings and Marcos Crespo’s the Assembly sponsor of that bill, has been incredibly responsive to really address some of the law enforcement concerns about having access to records at a traffic stop. And I’ve had some additional concerns about how you validate documents from another country, and they’re tweaking the language and we’re going to look at the next iteration so I’m feeling better about that bill,” said Fahy.

Assemblywoman Walsh, a Republican who says she has not seen amended language of the bill, still believes it’s a bad idea. She anticipates a battle if the bill is moved out of committee.

“I would anticipate that there’s going to be a very, very vigorous debate like there was 10 years ago. Because it was a bad idea then, it continues to be a bad idea now. I’ll continue to debate it if and when it does come to the floor,” said Walsh.

Governor Cuomo said Friday he supports the bill and has since Eliot Spitzer proposed it more than a decade ago.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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