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Advocates Make May Day Push For Driver's Licenses For Undocumented Immigrants

Dashed Arrow Shumita Basu / Gothamist / WNYC

May Day is traditionally marked by demonstrations observing International Workers’ Day, but this year, activists in New York and New Jersey are spending today rallying in support of bills in both states that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

Efforts to expand access to licenses have been slowly gaining traction in recent years. Connecticut and Vermont, alongside 10 other states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico have all passed legislation allowing people to get driver’s licenses without having to prove their immigration status. Advocates including Make The Road and 32BJ Service Employees International Union say the issue is the top priority of the immigrants’ rights movement.

“It’s the issue that gets our members out of bed at 6 in the morning to go Trenton, to miss a day’s pay, to lobby and to fight for licenses, and it keeps them up late at night thinking about whether they’ll be detained when dropping their kids off at school or when driving to take them to a doctor’s appointment,” Make the Road NJ director Sara Cullinane said at a May Day rally in Jersey City, with the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty.

Advocates said allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses will make the roads safer for all drivers, and raise tens millions of dollars in registration fees to boot. Twenty-one-year-old Rutgers University student Esder Chong, who also attended the Jersey City rally, said the ability to drive freely means a lot for immigrant families looking to establish themselves in the U.S.

“Thousands of DACA recipients and DACA students are in our schools," said Chong, who said she is the daughter of undocumented immigrants and is a DACA recipient herself. "Without the ability to drive we can’t commute to school, do activities, go to our professional opportunity events like internships and jobs. A lot of us are working to pay for our family living expenses, commuting to work while paying full tuition out of pocket.”

But while top Democrats in New York and New Jersey have pledged their support and promised to sign legislation, obstacles remain.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has long supported plans to give undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses, but for years he blamed the Republican-controlled State Senate for holding up legislation. Now that the Senate and Assembly are controlled by Democrats, and their leaders support the bills, some might think the measure is all but assured. However, some Democratic lawmakers, like Assemblyman John McDonald, are leery about voting for a bill that could put them in the hot seat.

“States are having this discussion because of failed federal policies, Republican and Democrat,” McDonald, who represents Cohoes, Rensselaer, and parts of Albany and Troy, told Spectrum News. “It’s not one party versus the other.”

Meanwhile, Republican legislators and other opponents held a press conference last week blasting the legislation as opening the door to identity theft and voter fraud.

“The concept of this legislation is bad, it’s poorly written and must be defeated,” said Saratoga State Senator Daphne Jordan, a Republican. “I say: Hit the brakes on licenses for illegal immigrants.”

The New York bill has a tangled history. Undocumented immigrants used to be able to obtain driver’s licenses, but that changed after 9/11, when Republican Governor George Pataki signed an executive order restricting the rules after the terrorist attacks. Governor Eliot Spitzer tried to drum up support to once again offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants in 2007, but he backed down after pushback from Democratic lawmakers and county clerks.

Across the Hudson River in New Jersey, the powerful state Senate President Steve Sweeney has endorsed the move, and Democratic Governor Phil Murphy has pledged to sign any bill that passes the legislature. And lawmakers in the state Assembly have introduced a measure to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

“The truth is, undocumented immigrants are already operating motor vehicles on our roadways, on our highways,” said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, Majority Whip of the New Jersey state Assembly who sponsored the driver’s license bill. He also attended the Jersey City rally. “Why wouldn’t we want them to be licensed and with vehicles that are registered and with insurance? It allows us to hold all drivers accountable.”

However, those efforts appear to have stalled out. Advocates supporting the measure are concerned that with all 80 Assembly seats up for election in November, Democratic Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin is keeping the issue off the docket in order to protect his members from facing a hard vote ahead. For weeks they have organized rallies and protests outside his office in Perth Amboy. A spokeswoman for Coughlin’s office told NorthJersey.com that he is still meeting with lawmakers and stakeholders while he reviews the legislation.

Shumita Basu is a host, producer and reporter in the newsroom. You can follow her on Twitter @shubasu.

Danny Lewis is an associate producer for WNYC's All Things Considered. You can follow him on Twitter at @dannydoodar.

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