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County clerk sues Cuomo to block NYS immigrant license law

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on July 2.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on July 2. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

ALBANY — A Western New York county clerk has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of a new law that allows people in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses.

Michael “Mickey” Kearns, an Erie County Democrat, says the new “law compels county clerks across the state to be an instrument to violate federal law.” He wants a federal ruling on the constitutionality of the law and an injunction to block it until such ruling is rendered.

Kearns filed the lawsuit late Monday against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — who signed the driver’s license measure into law last month after expressing misgivings — as well as Attorney General Letitia James and other state officials. It’s the first challenge to the new law, but others have been promised.

James said Tuesday the state law is well crafted and will withstand a constitutional challenge.

The driver’s license bill was approved in June, with the Democrat-led Assembly and Senate voting largely along party lines. Cuomo said he was concerned about whether federal immigration officials would be able to access drivers' information and use it for deportation purposes, raising the possibility of a veto. But, even without the assurance from the attorney general, Cuomo signed the bill into law — making New York the 13th state to allow immigrants in the country illegally to obtain licenses. The state law goes into effect in December.

In the claim, Kearns’ attorney said his client faces a predicament of either breaking federal law or risking removal from office by the governor.

If Kearns issues driver’s licenses to people in the country illegally, the lawsuit says, “he risks prosecution under a federal statute that makes it crime to conceal, harbor, or shield from detection an individual illegally in the United States. If he fails to implement (the law) he risks retaliation by defendants, including removal from office. Something has to give.”

Kearns contends the law is “unconstitutional and unenforceable.” Other upstate county clerks have promised similar lawsuits.

Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) applauded Kearns’ action and said of the law: “It’s wrong, it’s illegal and the courts have an obligation to step in and stop it from happening.”

The New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) called Kearns’ claim a “frivolous lawsuit that only serves to push a racist agenda.”

James, invoking the moniker of the bill used by supporters, countered: “The Green Light law is well-crafted and the Office of Attorney General has concluded that it is constitutional. As the state’s attorney and chief law enforcement officer, my office will vigorously defend it.”

Cuomo didn’t directly address Kearns’ lawsuit on Tuesday, but again raised the deportation issue.

“He’s going to say ‘You have a database of undocumented people. I want access to it,’” Cuomo said of President Donald Trump. “I think he’s going to get more aggressive, not less aggressive. And you’ll see it play out in the courts, whether or not a state can stop the federal government from accessing its law-enforcement databases. It’s going to be a very tough legal question.”

Steve Choi, executive director of the NYIC, took a shot at the governor’s view, saying: “If Gov. Cuomo wants to be the champion to immigrant New Yorkers that he claims to be, he needs to stop throwing cold water on a crucial legislative achievement that he signed into law. For months we heard how the governor supports this law, and yet he and his staff have done everything they can to undermine it.”

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