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NY Gov. Cuomo Signs Green Light Bill

New York State Capitol
Karen DeWitt
New York State Capitol

Following the Assembly, the New York state Senate voted 33-29 to allow undocumented immigrants to receive standard driver’s licenses. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo raised some last-minute objections, saying he fears that some data that the state Department of Motor Vehicles collects on the immigrants might be accessed by the federal government and immigration officials — but he has since signed the bill. 

During debate on the Senate floor, sponsor Luis Sepulveda said until President Donald Trump and Congress fix the nation's immigration problem, measures like granting undocumented immigrants driver's licenses are necessary.

"You look at these undocumented families, they cannot take their children to schools," Sepulveda said. "Some of them have children so sick that it brought me to tears. Because they cannot take a sick child to the hospital for medical attention."

The New York Immigration Coalition's Murad Awawdeh, who has been lobbying for the measure, said it would be a "game changer" for immigrants, especially for those working in areas where there is no public transit.

"Where people have to drive because there's no other way of getting around," Awawdeh said. "Having more people who are tested to drive, register their vehicles and have insurance on their vehicles, is a win-win for everyone in the state of New York."

Awawdeh said the measure would boost revenue through the licensing fees, reduce insurance premiums and make the streets safer. Studies show that, in states where the licenses are already legal, there are fewer incidents of hit-and-run accidents.

The state Assembly passed the measure last week. Cuomo, who has said in the past that he supports the idea, dampened expectations on whether he'd sign the bill in an interview on Albany public radio station WAMC.

Cuomo said in recent days, a new worry has developed. He said he has concerns that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, might be able to find a back way into the state DMV database and use that information to deport people.

"We have to write a law that does not have an unintended consequence, that's what the smart people are worried about," Cuomo said.

Cuomo pointed to a news report from California, where it is legal for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. It said ICE used backdoor methods to obtain personal information about some immigrants and then used that data to track them down and deport them.

Awawdeh is skeptical about the governor's objections. He said the governor has been on record as supporting the driver's licenses for a dozen years.

When Cuomo was attorney general in 2007, he wrote a memo in support of a similar measure introduced by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer. And Awawdeh said the current bill has been discussed for three years and includes protections aimed at addressing holes in California's system to better protect New York immigrants' personal data from ICE.

"I miss the 2007 Attorney General Cuomo," he said. "Not sure what happens since 2007 Cuomo to 2019 Cuomo, but I'm hoping he's not putting politics over the people of New York."

Monday evening, state Attorney General Letitia James issued a statement saying that she believes the bill is "well crafted and contains ample protections for those who apply for driver’s licenses."

“If this bill is enacted and challenged in court, we will vigorously defend it,” James said. “I support the Green Light bill, and the Office of Attorney General has concluded that it is constitutional.”

Around an hour and a half later, Cuomo’s counsel, Alphonso David, said in a statement that he was satisfied with AG James’ assessment, and that the governor would sign the bill.

Republicans, who are in the minority in both houses, are against the measure. GOP Senator Jim Tedisco represents Schenectady and portions of its suburbs. Polls show the bill is unpopular in upstate areas.

Tedisco said granting the undocumented immigrants the licenses condones some of the unlawful actions that the immigrants took to get into the country.

"If I can come here as someone through the process illegally, and get all the benefits and the privileges of what a citizen can get, why would I wait in line?" Tedisco said. "You are incentivizing them from not following through with the greatest gift any individual can get: becoming a citizen of the United States of America."

Tedisco said ultimately, it's about gaining voting rights for undocumented immigrants — something advocates and bill sponsors have consistently said is not true.

The state's association of county clerks is against the measure. And some county clerks in upstate New York have threatened to disobey the law. They have said they will refuse to issue the licenses or even notify ICE if an undocumented immigrant tries to apply for one.

Under state law, the governor has the power to remove a county clerk from office if they refuse to carry out New York's statutes.

Tedisco introduced an amendment to protect the county clerks in the event of such a scenario, but it was voted down along party lines.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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