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Advocates note benefits of driver's licenses for undocumented residents

New York State currently prohibits the undocumented from obtaining a driver's license, creating a barrier to attending many day-to-day activities.

Patrick Young, left, with CARECEN and Jonas Shaende

Patrick Young, left, with CARECEN and Jonas Shaende with Fiscal Policy Institute at a forum at Hofstra University on Tuesday. Photo Credit: Shelby Knowles

Allowing undocumented residents to obtain driver's licenses would make Long Island roads safer while providing a steady stream of new revenue to the state, advocates and fiscal watchdogs said Tuesday.

New York State currently prohibits undocumented immigrants from obtaining a driver's license, a barrier to attending many day-to-day activities, including work, school and medical appointments.

Legislation under consideration by Albany lawmakers would allow the  state Department of Motor Vehicles to process licenses for undocumented immigrants while prohibiting the information from being shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

At a forum Tuesday at Hofstra University, immigrant rights advocates argued that the measure, known as Green Light New York, is both a moral imperative and smart economic policy.

"For many Long Islanders, having access to a driver's license is not a luxury; it's a necessity," said Eliana Fernandez, lead organizer for Make the Road New York, in Brentwood. 

Roughly 265,000 undocumented immigrants statewide, including an estimated 51,000 on Long Island, would be eligible to obtain a driver's license through the bill, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a progressive think tank.

Jonas Shaende, chief economist for the Institute, said the measure would generate $57 million in annual revenue for the state, while local governments on Long Island would see $2.6 million per year in additional sales taxes and vehicle use tax fees.

The measure, he said, would also improve safety by ensuring that many undocumented immigrants already on the road are properly trained, tested and fully insured.

"Once people are not living and driving in fear, they act like normal people; they act responsibly," Shaende said. "And if you have policies of suppression and fear, then of course they will act in ways that are shortsighted and harmful."

Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center, said New York State should not be in the business of immigration enforcement.

"Immigrants are still driving, even if they don't have a license," Young said. "But when they drive they know that if the police stop them they run the risk of potentially being detained or being held long enough for ICE to come and arrest them."

Few states had restrictions on licenses for undocumented immigrants until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2002, then-Gov. George Pataki issued an executive order prohibiting the distribution of driver’s licenses to those in the country illegally to safeguard against terrorists securing IDs. 

The Green Light legislation has the backing of many Assembly Democrats but does not yet have enough support in the Democrat-controlled State Senate, including from most Republicans or any member of the Long Island delegation. 

Opponents of the measure argue that a license could provide undocumented immigrants with access to services for which they are not entitled.

A dozen states and the District of Columbia already issue licenses to those in the country illegally.

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