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Gov. Cuomo: Homeland Security memo shows travel ban 'politically motivated'

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo during a news conference

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo during a news conference at his Manhattan office on Jan. 23. Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Tuesday that an internal federal memo shows the Trump administration is banning New Yorkers from joining programs to speed through airport security in an effort to force New York State to release driver records that could identify people in the country illegally.

Cuomo said the Jan. 27 federal memo leaked to BuzzFeed News showed there was a political motive, not a public safety concern, behind last week’s ban of New Yorkers from joining or renewing membership in most "trusted traveler” programs, including Global Entry.

The programs allow members to use faster lines and not remove their shoes, belts, laptop computers or light jackets in land, sea and air border crossings.

The January memo was from James McCament, acting head of the Homeland Security policy office, to Acting Director of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, according to BuzzFeed.

The memo recounts ways that were considered — but not implemented — to obtain driver’s license records from several states, including New York.

Banning New Yorkers from the trusted traveler programs was an option to “consider in response to the impact of the NY Green Light and other laws restricting access to state DMV information,” the memo said. 

Another option was to close the Homeland Security office in New York used to certify and enroll people in Global Entry and other programs. But that could create delays in other states, the memo warned.

Also considered was prohibition of the use of New York driver's licenses as "a valid form of ID for DHS business purposes." However, that would be "legally dubious" and carry a "high-litigation risk," the memo said. 

Homeland Security also considered cutting the popular TSA Precheck, which isn’t part of the "trusted traveler" program ban, and proposed seeking a blanket court subpoena for all state driver’s licenses.

Another option was to prevail upon “friendly” states that provide driver’s license records to the federal government to obtain driver data from uncooperative states under the federal REAL ID program.

To comply with the REAL ID law, states must “provide electronic access to all other states to information contained in its motor vehicle database,” the memo said, according to BuzzFeed.

REAL ID will be used to verify legal citizenship or residency in order to fly within the United States and internationally beginning Oct. 1, although passengers still will be able to use passports.

A federal spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

But a Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman told BuzzFeed that the memo referred only to proposals that were discussed, but not implemented, in response to a state law that provides driver’s licenses to those in the country illegally.

“The acting secretary took targeted and limited action to address the security vulnerability New York’s law created,” DHS spokeswoman Heather Swift told BuzzFeed.

New York has denied the federal agency access to driver records under the state’s Green Light Law.

Since Dec. 14, the Green Light Law has provided low-level driver’s licenses “not for federal use” to those in the country illegally.

Cuomo says the law makes roads safer and provides legal driving rights to immigrants for work, worship and other purposes.

The Green Light Law allows Homeland Security officials to obtain driver's license records. But federal officials would have to obtain a court order, a process that could be time-consuming for immigration enforcement agents pursuing a case.

But Cuomo administration officials said excerpts reported by BuzzFeed supported their contention that the administration of President Donald Trump used the ban as leverage to advance the president's immigration policies.

"From the beginning we have said the Trump administration's decision to ban New Yorkers from the trusted traveler program was politically motivated retaliation meant to specifically punish New York. We were right," Cuomo said.

"The leaked DHS memo is the smoking gun that proves that the Trump administration is once again knowingly abusing power by using government to extort states for political purposes, with no rational link to a legitimate policy," Cuomo said.

However, the memo says failure to take any action would send a “message” that uncooperative states could “refuse to provide critical information with the Department without a consequence.”

Homeland Security officials said last week they would lift the ban on New Yorkers joining or renewing membership to the trusted traveler programs if the Cuomo administration released DMV records.

The federal memo wasn’t published by BuzzFeed and the Cuomo administration said it didn’t have a copy.

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