There are approximately 700,000 undocumented immigrants in New York, and many have been waiting for a chance to get a driver's license for more than a decade. It's no surprise that when the "Green Light Law" allowing these state residents to get their licenses went into effect on Dec. 16, so many rushed forward to do so.
The state was not ready, and DMV offices were swamped.
Until 2002, proof of citizenship was not required to get a driver's license in New York, but that year then-Gov. George E. Pataki signed an executive order requiring applicants to provide Social Security cards, amid fears of terrorism in response to the attacks of 9/11. In 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed an executive order directing the DMV to issue licenses to applicants regardless of immigration status, but his move resulted in a political firestorm and Spitzer dropped the issue.
From then on Albany Democrats pressed laws allowing undocumented residents to get the licenses, and were rebuffed by the Republican-controlled State Senate every year. That changed in 2019, when Democrats took the Senate, and made granting the licenses a priority.
It quickly produced a disaster. Many DMV offices, particularly on Long Island and in New York City and Westchester, were deluged with extraordinary lines that snared other New Yorkers. A visit to the DMV always took a chunk of time, especially as drivers have needed to visit the offices in person to get the Real ID or Secure ID needed for domestic travel after Oct. 1. But now a visit to DMV was swallowing the day.
But the crush presents an opportunity, because dealing with the current mass of applicants could show the state a better way forward that lasts after these lines are gone. There is no reason so much of our business with the DMV must be done in person, and no reason DMVs can't be open nights and weekends.
New York clearly wasn't ready for this particular onlsaught. At the Hauppaugge DMV office, undocumented residents have lined up as early as 4 a.m., and it has taken customers hours after the office opens to even get inside the building.
Responding to this crisis, the DMV said Friday that it has has hired about 350 workers statewide and instituted some Saturday, early morning and evening hours in its busiest offices, asking employees to volunteer to work hours outside of their contract and mandating the overtime when there are too few volunteers. That was 25 days after the law changed and the DMVs were deluged and seven months after the Green Light Law was signed. That's too late, and it may still be too little.
And the debacle also drove home how clearly the DMV and other state offices with customer-service components fail residents. They need to have regular evening hours and facilities open on Saturdays and Sundays that spread out the crush and allow residents to utilize services on their timetable, so the state must push for changes in its deal with the employees' union, the CSEA. And these offices need to offer a wider variety of services online, as other states are doing with Real ID. That's what modern, responsive businesses and organizations do. Taxpayers deserve no less.
—The editorial board