Albany, New York: Undocumented immigrants in New York State notched a historic win on Monday night as Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law restoring their right to apply for a driver’s license.
The governor’s signature came after the state Senate narrowly approved the bill, which had passed the Assembly last week, marking the latest show of force by the newly Democrat-dominated Legislature.
Cuomo injected some last-minute drama earlier in the evening when he publicly weighed a veto, expressing concerns the measure would expose license-holders to the scrutiny of federal immigration officials.
He asked for assurances from state Solicitor General Barbara Underwood that the bill was legally defensible. When her boss, state Attorney General Letitia James, declared the “legislation is well crafted and contains ample protections for those who apply for driver’s licenses,” Cuomo gave in.
“Governor Cuomo has supported this policy for over a decade,” Alphonso David, the governor’s counsel, said in a statement. “The key to this bill is not the political intent but the legal effect. We hope the Attorney General’s assessment is correct for the safety of the thousands of undocumented individuals who are relying on her legal opinion.”
The law will go into effect in 180 days, meaning undocumented immigrants could get licenses beginning in December. Legislators say undocumented immigrants will have to follow the same requirements as all other licensed drivers in New York, including having auto insurance.
Proponents also emphasized that the bill would not provide a path to citizenship and would not enable licensees to board planes.
“It’s been an 18-year struggle,” said Javier Valdés, the co-executive director of Make the Road New York, a prominent immigrant advocacy group. “The resilience of the immigrant community has shown through once again.”
Twelve states and Washington, D.C., currently allow undocumented immigrants to drive. New Jersey is weighing a similar proposal.
Bill Squeaks Through Senate
The bill passed the Senate 33 to 29, with all six Democrats from Long Island and one Hudson Valley Democrat voting against the measure, raising the political stakes for the governor.
Opponents of the bill argued it would handcuff law enforcement officials, and some county clerks have threatened not to follow the law. Supporters say the change will ultimately make roads safer, cutting down on unlicensed drivers.
The bill carries high stakes for an estimated 200,000 immigrant New Yorkers who would be eligible to apply and have been navigating life without access to state-issued identification. For them, standard interactions with law enforcement can lay down the groundwork for deportation.
It’s been that way since 2001, when, in the wake of 9/11, then-Gov. George Pataki mandated that anyone applying for a license have a Social Security card, essentially barring undocumented immigrants. In 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer tried — and failed — to reverse the policy amid a barrage of opposition.
The signing of the bill by Cuomo is expected to shift the landscape — and raise questions for undocumented immigrants, including:
What Do You Need To Apply For A License?
• An unexpired passport from the country of citizenship
• An unexpired consular identification document issued by the applicant’s country of citizenship
• A foreign driver’s license that is unexpired or has been expired for less than 24 months from the expiration date
• An applicant also will need to sign an affidavit saying they have not been issued a Social Security number.
What Happens To The Information?
• The DMV can release information on an applicant if there’s a court order or a judicial warrant signed by a judge, or if the records are subpoenaed as part of a civil or criminal investigation.
• Federal immigration officials can get information about an applicant if they have a court order or judicial warrant signed by a judge. But the applicant would be notified within three days if such a request is made.
• The license, which will say “not for federal purposes,” can’t be used as evidence of citizenship or immigration status — or as the basis for arresting or detaining a person.
Image: Governor Andrew Cuomo holds a news conference in Midtown, June 17, 2019.