Sen. Luis R. Sepulveda (D-Bronx) center, celebrates after his legislation sponsoring...

Sen. Luis R. Sepulveda (D-Bronx) center, celebrates after his legislation sponsoring the Green Light bill granting undocumented immigrant driver's licenses was passed by the Senate during a session at the state Capitol June 17 in Albany. Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

ALBANY — As many as 80,000 people statewide who are living in the country illegally, including 30,000 on Long Island, will be able to obtain valid New York State driver’s licenses beginning Saturday.

The starting date follows years of conflict and a continuing divide among New Yorkers. Supporters say the law will make roads safer and help immigrant families prosper; opponents call the law nothing less than a tool for terrorists.

The measure, referred to as the Green Light Law, was passed earlier this year and signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, making New York the 13th state to provide driver’s licenses to those in the country illegally.

The state will issue only standard driver’s licenses to those immigrants, which means they won’t be able to obtain trucker’s licenses or other commercial licenses. The standard licenses also won’t meet federal standards for identification and so the holders won’t be able to use them to board airplanes or enter federal facilities. Under the law, these licenses also “shall be visually identical” to standard licenses issued to U.S. citizens.

The Green Light Law also allows new kinds of records to be used by immigrants to apply for licenses. These include an unexpired passport from another country, an unexpired identification number from a consulate, and a foreign driver’s license that is valid or expired for less than 24 months. If an applicant doesn’t have a Social Security number, they need to sign an affidavit that they hadn’t been issued one.

Even the federal government would need a court order to obtain these records. The law requires that most of the records to eventually be destroyed, and supporters expect that would happen before court orders could be issued. The documentation is specifically identified as not being a public record under the law.

The destruction of documents used to obtain the license is prompted by the Trump administration’s threat to use state records to identify and deport undocumented immigrants, said sponsors of the law.

Last week, the DMV was still scrambling to provide the final instructions and devices to help authenticate documents. The data was sent to county clerks who handle DMV chores upstate and to state Department of Motor Vehicles employees who handle most license applications from Westchester to Long Island.

“DMV provided preliminary guidance to the county clerks earlier this week and will be offering comprehensive training to state and county staff later this week,” said Lisa Koumjian, assistant commissioner for communications at the state DMV, on Wednesday.

Legal challenges continue in which a judge could delay the start of the law, but that became less likely after a key lawsuit by Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns was dismissed by a judge in November. U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Wolford in Buffalo said local officials can’t use the federal courts to challenge the law simply because they “strenuously disagree with the Green Light Law.” Instead, they must prove damage or a clear threat created by the law, she said.

Opponents of the law cited a provision of the 9/11 Commission that said, “For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons.”

In support of a pending lawsuit brought by the Rensselaer County clerk, the U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday called the state Green Light Law “legally suspect” and “appear aimed at frustrating the federal government’s enforcement of immigration laws.”

Upstate county clerks were threatening to report undocumented immigrants to federal agents. Kearns said Thursday he will post the federal Homeland Security tip line phone number in Erie County offices that handle licensing “so taxpayers can fight against policies that promote criminal activity.”

On Friday, legislators who supported the Green Light Law petitioned to have Motor Vehicles Commissioner Mark Schroeder enact his power to take over license application duties if county clerks refuse to do so or try to intimidate immigrants seeking licenses. Cuomo can also replace a clerk who fails to follow a state law.

“A driver’s license is a privilege, not a right,” said Assembly Republican leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua). “But New York’s liberal left has no problem with granting privileges of law-abiding citizens to individuals who are currently breaking the law. County clerks from across the state have voiced serious objections, and some have gone so far as to challenge the Green Light bill in court. Much needs to be sorted out with court decisions and specifics of implementation, but ultimately this law is wrong in principle and policy.”

Most New Yorkers also remain leery of the measure.

A June poll found 53 percent of voters opposed the law, while 41 percent supported it. But the divide was sharply partisan, with 53 percent of Democrats in favor and 82 percent of Republicans opposed. Among voters not enrolled in a party, 55 percent opposed the law; 41 percent liked it.

“Granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants is a clear threat to public safety and sends a wrong message to hardworking, law-abiding New Yorkers,” said State Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond to Newsday’s request for comment and has told other news organizations that it doesn’t have a position on state licenses being issued to undocumented immigrants. 

Supporters of the law dismiss linking the licensing to terrorism as baseless scare tactics.

They emphasize that the law will make the roads safer with better trained drivers who can obtain insurance and drive cars that pass annual safety inspections; reduce hit-and-run accidents because immigrants will no longer need to fear deportation from a traffic infraction; and allow immigrant families as well as the state’s economy to flourish.

The Green Light Law is a return to decades of state policy in place before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Pat Young, downstate advocacy director of the New York Immigration Coalition. Before laws passed by then-Gov. George Pataki and the State Legislature after the attacks aimed at bolstering public safety, immigrants who weren’t U.S. citizens could obtain driver’s licenses. Immigrants with “permanent resident” status who aren’t U.S. citizens can still secure driver’s licenses under state law.

“It’s an old process being restored,” Young said. “This is going to make the state much safer in places like Long Island and Westchester where there is a dense immigration population that wants to be able to drive. People will be able to find jobs farther away from their homes, they will be able to attend school functions with their kids, and many say they will be able now to drive to church.

Young, based in Hempstead, said he now sees a long column of immigrants walking more than a mile to attend Catholic masses in Spanish and to church social gatherings in a trek that can be dangerous in winter. That could change under the law, he said.

In 2015, California was the 11th state to provide driver’s licenses to those living in the country illegally. There, one of the few extensive studies on the issue showed a 7 percent to 10 percent decrease in hit-and-run accidents in the first year of California’s new law. That was about 4,000 fewer hit-and-run accidents, according to the study by Stanford University professors and an immigration group that was published in a national scientific journal. The study estimated California drivers saved $3.5 million in the first year in property damage costs from accidents.

In New York, the labor-backed Fiscal Policy Institute estimates the law will also provide $57 million in tax revenue from license and auto registration fees and sales tax for cars, with Long Island collecting about $26 million a year.

“There’s a clear economic benefit when people can get to their jobs and a social benefit when they can pick up their kids from school,” said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the Immigration Research Initiative of the Fiscal Policy Institute. “That translates into better living standards, higher tax revenues, and better functioning communities. And having a license is especially important in areas that lack a strong public transportation system like Long Island. The people applying for licenses are just like you and me — community members who are trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.”

What you need to know

Beginning Saturday, Dec. 14, undocumented immigrants will be able to obtain valid state driver’s licenses.

  • Immigrants will be able to apply for a standard driver’s license like any U.S. citizen. But under the Green Light Law enacted this year, these immigrants will be able to produce different records to prove their identity. The new records will include an expired passport, an expired identification number from a consulate, and a valid foreign driver’s license or one that has been expired for less than 24 months. No social security number? An immigrant would have to sign an affidavit that they hadn’t been issued one.
  • The license won’t identify the holder as an undocumented immigrant.
  • The license won’t provide access to aircraft or federal facilities such as nuclear power plants. Beginning Oct. 1, 2020, all travelers on commercial aircraft including domestic flights will need identification that meets the federal REAL ID standards, which includes proof of U.S. citizenship or legal immigration status such as a permanent resident.
  • Many of the papers that immigrants will use to prove their identity will be destroyed by the state under the law to prohibit the federal government from using the records to seek undocumented immigrants.

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