‘Green Light NY’ bill becomes law, granting licenses to undocumented immigrants

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Palpable anxiety filled a room at the Center of Alliance, Solidarity and Accompaniment (CASA) in Riverhead Monday evening as the “Green Light NY” bill came down to a vote on the floor of the New York State Senate. 

Roughly 75 immigrants, community members and activists gathered, holding candles and locking their hands in prayer as they watched a live stream of the debate and vote.

The bill, which would permit undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, faced an uncertain future in the Senate after being passed in the state Assembly last week.

Noemi Sanchez, a coordinator at CASA, described how fear and apprehension have become the norm for so many immigrants in the community, including her daughter.

“She needs to go to the doctor, she needs to bring her baby to day care and she’s scared the police will stop her,” Ms. Sanchez said. “There are a lot of stops by the police and they call ICE and deport.”

Later that evening, tears streamed and the crowd of supporters erupted in cheers as the roll call vote resulted in a 33-29 victory. Gov. Andrew Cuomo quickly signed the bill into law.

Among the supporters was the Rev. Gerardo Romo-Garcia, the bishop’s vicar for Hispanic ministry at the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. He said the measure would result in better transportation and more opportunities, especially for those living on the East End or in rural areas upstate.

“It’s inhumane to see people cycling or walking or waiting for a bus in very, very cruel weather conditions,” he said.

That sentiment resonated with local activists, who agreed that the East End relies on a largely immigrant workforce but does not provide adequate transportation. Minerva Perez, executive director of Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, said in an interview last week that the East End is “virtually unlivable” without a car.

Ms. Perez, the Rev. Romo-Garcia and other proponents of the legislation said the law would lead to greater public safety, as more drivers would pass road tests, have vehicle inspections and obtain insurance.

The bill would allow undocumented immigrants access to “standard” driver’s licenses, one of three types the federal government will unveil in October 2020, provided they prove their identity and pass written and road tests.

Historically, undocumented residents in New York were allowed to have driver’s licenses if they passed the required tests and proved their residency. In 2001, former governor George Pataki reversed that measure via executive order.

With the law’s passage in New York, only 13 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico allow undocumented immigrants to have driver’s licenses.

Supporters of Greenlight NY applaud the Senate approval at an event focused on the bill in Riverhead Monday. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)

Supporters of the legislation launched a statewide lobbying effort this spring. At a rally in Riverhead in March, more than 100 people marched down Roanoke Avenue to Main Street and then east all the way to Route 58, ending at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Organizers said that allowing all New York residents, regardless of immigration status, to acquire driver’s licenses would improve public safety, provide a boost to the state’s economy and allow immigrants to navigate their communities without fear.

Data from the Fiscal Policy Institute suggests that 51,000 undocumented Long Islanders could be affected by the law and the state could receive an estimated $57 million in new revenue.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said Friday that he initially opposed the first draft of the legislation, but believes the rewritten bill addressed his concerns. “[The East End police chiefs] agree that everyone who drives in New York State should have a valid driver’s license. That’s a no-brainer,” he said, adding that there are public safety advantages to every driver being licensed.

Under the legislation, undocumented license applicants must pass a driving test and be made aware of traffic laws to help ensure they are operating registered, inspected and insured vehicles.

Fees generated by the issuance of new licenses would continue to be earmarked for the dedicated Highway and Bridge Trust fund, which helps fix transportation infrastructure, officials said.

Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) did not support the measure.

In a statement issued after last week’s Assembly vote, Mr. Palumbo said time will reveal the “real dangers” of the bill. “When we legitimize illegal immigration by rewarding individuals here illegally with driver’s licenses, we encourage it to continue, “ his statement said. “This bill not only encourages illegal immigration but goes directly against federal law and protects those who break it.” His statement added that the Legislature should “get back on track” and focus on issues such as taxes.

All six state senators representing Suffolk County in Albany voted against the measure Monday, including Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).

Mr. LaValle issued this statement last week: “I was a member of a NYS Senate Task Force on Immigration and I have studied this issue. I remain steadfast in my position that 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.”

South Fork Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) cited public safety as his reason for supporting the bill. He also noted that public transportation isn’t widely available on the East End.

“For undocumented New Yorkers, they take a risk each time they need to drive because our current laws bar them from doing so. By removing these barriers, we can help them go about their daily lives while improving road safety and boosting local economies. It’s smart policy and helps ensure no one is pushed further into the shadows,” Mr. Thiele said in a statement.

Mr. Thiele noted that the local economy depends on immigrants being economically self-sufficient and emphasized that the legislation does not affect voting rights; Enhanced and Real-ID licenses, which will soon be needed for air travel; or federal immigration laws or status.

The new law will take effect in December.

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