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NY Advocates Say Time Has Come For Undocumented Immigrants To Get Driver's Licenses

Cecilia Vasquez at a rally supporting driver's licenses for undocumented New Yorkers last December
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Cecilia Vasquez at Monday's rally Arun Venugopal / WNYC

Immigrant rights groups gathered on the steps of City Hall with elected officials to push for a long-awaited progressive cause: drivers licenses for any adult residing in the state, regardless of their immigration status.

Activists are newly emboldened by the results of the midterm elections, which saw significant Democratic gains in the State Senate.

“Right now we’re looking at over 700,000 people who would benefit from this,” said Javier Valdes, the co-executive director of Make the Road NY. “So this is a huge impact, not only with people in the city but in Long Island and all throughout the state.”

Valdes said that prior to the 9/11 attacks, immigrants in New York could get drivers licenses regardless of their status.

In 2007, Governor Eliot Spitzer attempted to re-introduce licenses for immigrants, via executive order, legislation and administrative measure, but each time he encountered fierce opposition from Republican legislators. The intensity of the backlash was encapsulated by the title of a legislative report they issued at the time, "Fiasco: The Governor’s Plan to Grant Illegal Aliens Driver’s Licenses in New York State."

“New Yorkers cannot and should not forget that 18 of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9-11 attack obtained drivers licenses to get through security points and kill Americans,” State Senator Kenneth LaValle, who represents Long Island, said at the time.

Despite repeated attempts by Spitzer, and in the face of pushback from Lou Dobbs and other conservative media figures, the proposal went down.

But a slew of newly-elected Latino legislators have raised advocates' hopes. These include Senator Jessica Ramos, who represents Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst, in Queens.

Ramos recounted the story of her own father, an immigrant who reported to work in Secaucus, New Jersey, and was detained by immigration officers.

“And my mom and sister couldn’t find him for three days,” she said.

“Making sure that we can keep our diversity and ensure that there’s economic opportunity for our diversity is very, very important,” said Ramos.

According to State Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa, 90 percent of the people held at one immigration detention facility, in Orange County, were detained because of traffic violations.

“These are not the criminals that the conservative media sometimes wants to portray,” she said. “These are people who are going to work, have no other method of going to work.”

Twelve states, including Connecticut, as well as Washington D.C., allow immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses, according to advocates. Governor Andrew Cuomo has indicated he would sign a bill, if it comes to his desk.

Saima Anjam of the New York Immigration Coalition predicted that the measure would pass by the end of March.

“We’re still waiting to hear on who will be assigned which committee chairs, but given the widespread support that we’ve seen for this bill to date, we’re really hopeful that it’ll move.”

In New Jersey, immigrant rights advocates are making a similar push for drivers licenses, and Anjam said it’s possible they would succeed before activists in New York.

“It’s just time for New York to catch up,” she said.

Arun Venugopal is a reporter who focuses on issues of race and immigration. You can follow him on Twitter at @arunNYC.

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