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In New York, Undocumented Immigrants Could Become Eligible for Driver's Licenses Again

Nationally, traffic violations constitute the plurality of charges leading to ICE detention.
Immigrant License

New York state legislators are expected to vote in the coming weeks to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses amid growing calls from civil rights advocates across the nation to take action to prevent routine traffic stops from landing immigrants in deportation proceedings.

A bill introduced in the state Senate currently sits in committee and is expected to go before both houses of state congress and then to Governor Andrew Cuomo for a signature before the end of the current legislative session next month. There are an estimated 940,000 undocumented immigrants in the state, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. Of the immigrants with criminal charges detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement nationally in 2017, Pew Research found that the greatest plurality of the charges—24,438, or 17 percent of the total—were traffic violations.

Undocumented immigrants in New York were able to obtain driver's licenses until 2001, when former Republican Governor George Pataki, citing national security threats, barred them from obtaining the identification by enacting an executive order requiring Social Security numbers or other proof of legal residency in order to obtain licenses. Pataki's successor, Eliot Spitzer, attempted to reverse the decision but was beset by critics.

"In the state of New York, we all know undocumented immigrants are already driving," says New York State Senator Luis Sepúlveda, a Democrat from a district in the Bronx borough of New York City who introduced the bill. "They don't take the exam or the practical classes. You're creating a situation where you're making unsafe driving conditions throughout the state."

Sepúlveda explains that his bill would not only ensure that all drivers on the road have adhered to the same safety measures, it would generate—through the fees associated with obtaining the licenses—some much-needed income to respond to the state's projected $2.3 billion deficit. "If you look at the first year it's implemented, [the bill] will create $26-30 million in revenue for the state. After that it's about $55-60 million in revenue for the state annually."

New York immigrant rights advocates champion the proposed legislation. "Although the fight for the restoration of driver's licenses in New York has been ongoing since they were rescinded in the 2001, in the Trump era, a routine road stop can get a New Yorker separated from their families, detained, and deported," says Su Patel, spokesperson for the New York Immigrant Coalition. "This is common sense legislation that is good for the economy, small business, road safety, and the 4.4 million immigrant New Yorkers."

The bill is not without its critics. Leading the charge against Sepúlveda's bill is fellow state Senator Daphne Jordan, a Republican hailing from a district in the state capital of Albany. "By giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, Senate Bill S.1747 (aka the 'Green Light Bill') would make our roadways less safe, impair the ability of law enforcement to do their job, and increase the possibility for fraud and other forms of identification theft," Jordan says.

Jordan argues that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration found that, of 12 states where undocumented immigrants are allowed to obtain driver's licenses, 10 saw an increase in traffic fatalities between 2015 and 2016 while New York saw a 10 percent decrease. Jordan did not indicate in her comments to Pacific Standard the proportion of those traffic incidents that involved undocumented drivers. NHTSA data seen by Pacific Standard following correspondence with the agency's staff did not appear to cite the citizenship status of the drivers involved in traffic incidents.

Sepúlveda's bill includes several safeguards preventing the sharing of driver information that might indicate to law enforcement their immigration status. Jordan says that a provision barring the Department of Motor Vehicles from sharing databases with third parties, including law enforcement who do not have a warrant, "represents a major encumbrance on law enforcement."

Jordan has indicated to the local press that allowing undocumented people driver's licenses would open the door to voter and other sorts of fraud. "Driver's licenses help confirm an individual's identification and provide entrée to other forms of critical identification," she says.

Organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union have said that the Trump administration and its supporters have brandished what they say are trumped up voter fraud concerns to suit their political agenda, including introducing voter identification laws that have served to dissuade communities of color from the polls.

Sepúlveda blasted Jordan's arguments against his bill as being factually baseless. "Senator Jordan is engaging in irresponsible fear-mongering," he says. "The difference between their argument and mine is mine is based on data and research. Theirs is based on pandering to the worst elements of society."

In New York, the renewed push to grant undocumented immigrants driver's licenses comes after Democrats gained control of the state Senate—and the entire state legislature and governorship—in the mid-term elections last year. Elsewhere, the push for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses comes amid concerns that minor infractions have enabled local authorities to turn over undocumented people to federal immigration authorities, often despite sanctuary policies in individual states barring such cooperation and a Supreme Court ruling, Arizona v. United States, that found that local collaboration with federal immigration agents is unconstitutional.

"Colorado, Florida, and other places are fighting for it," explains Yatziri Tovar, a spokeswoman for Make the Road NY, one of the organizations leading the charge for driver's licenses for immigrants. "We had a joint action with our neighbors across the river in New Jersey on May Day. Both states see the need. Momentum has been building throughout the country. The movement is realizing this is one way that we can protect our families—that families don't have to fear that when they take their kids to school they could be stopped and put on a path to deportation."

Wisconsin is one state presently struggling to offer licenses to immigrant drivers. "After a massive effort, our community elected a pro-immigrant, pro-labor, and pro-public education governor in 2018," says Christine Neumann-Ortiz, director of Voces de la Frontera, an advocacy group. "Tony Evers has put driver's licenses and in-state tuition for immigrants in his state budget. This was a partial victory but not a total victory." Last week, Republican state legislators removed Evers' provisions for immigrant licenses and in-state tuition from the budget.

Still, Neumann-Ortiz insists that her organization and others will not be defeated. "This does not mean that the battle is over," she says. "We are continuing to move forward to build a broad coalition that includes Republican dairy farmers to call on Republican state legislators to restore driver's licenses for immigrants through a standalone bill or through the budget process."

In states where driver's licenses have already been secured for immigrants, advocates are working to improve understanding of the importance of freedom of movement for immigrant communities. "Over a million Californians have been able to obtain licenses under the state's AB 60 law. Earlier this year, CIPC released a short film by Set Hernandez Rongkilyo, Freedom to Drive, that explored the experience of diverse immigrant communities with AB 60 and looked at how the freedom of mobility fits into the bigger context of our struggles for social justice," says Layla Razavi, director of the California Immigrant Policy Center.

Razavi sees driver's licenses as a starting-off point for further protections for immigrants. "For a long time, licenses and ID have been viewed as the baseline protection that local and state governments can provide," Razavi says. "It's almost like first base if sanctuary is home plate. It's completely expected that such targeted attacks would lead states to pursue licenses with renewed vigor."