With the fate of marijuana legalization still very uncertain in Albany, progressives are hoping another long sought-after priority can become law before the end of the legislative session next month—driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
The Green Light bill, as it’s known among advocates, would authorize the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles to issue driver’s licenses to noncitizens. Twelve other states and the District of Columbia do this already. For undocumented immigrants who don’t have driver’s licenses but do drive for work, it would allow them to operate vehicles legally and also have a form of ID for other official purposes.
The Democrat-controlled state legislature is nearing the number of votes needed to pass the legislation. The State Assembly is expected to move first, having reached the threshold needed to send the bill to the Senate. Speaker Carl Heastie “supports it and has said there’s enough support in our conference to move this proposal forward,” said Michael Whyland, a spokesperson for Heastie. Governor Andrew Cuomo, in turn, recently embraced the legislation more than he had in the past.
While the new dynamic in Albany has manifested itself as a more ambitious and progressive Senate butting heads with an Assembly that is dominated by older, more moderate members, the push to pass the Green Light bill has played out in reverse. Passage in the Senate is still not assured, though advocates believe they are closer than they have ever been to rounding up the votes needed.
“I think we are in a good place and the momentum is in our favor,” said State Senator Luis Sepulveda, the Bronx Democrat carrying the legislation in the Senate. “Certainly members are still a little nervous because of the politics of the bill, but every [Democratic] member believes it’s the right thing to do.”
The Green Light bill has 25 co-sponsors in the Senate, which is still short of the 32 needed for passage. Immigrant activists are targeting suburban and rural Democrats who are still undecided, as well as Staten Island Democrat Diane Savino. Make the Road New York, an immigrant rights group, has deployed canvassers in the districts of the six Long Island Democrats who are not on the bill, as well as in Staten Island.
On Monday, the New York Immigration Coalition debuted a TV ad highlighting possible public safety benefits of the bill. Advocates argue that undocumented immigrants currently driving without licenses can become safer drivers if they are legally allowed to go to the DMV and pass a road test.
“We talk a lot about public safety,” said Yaritza Mendez, the lead immigration organizer with Make the Road NY. “Making sure every driver on the road is licensed to drive. Public safety is key.”
While conservatives have decried the bill as a government giveaway to noncitizens—Republican Senate candidates are expected to portray Democrats in 2020 as too cozy with law-breaking immigrants—advocates have stressed practical arguments: more licensed drivers on the road and increased revenue for the state. The bill would affect as many as 265,000 people and could generate $34 million in annual revenue from gas and auto taxes and fees, according to an analysis by the left-leaning Fiscal Policy Institute and City Comptroller Scott Stringer.
Privately, at least three Long Island Democrats have said they would vote for the bill if it reached the floor, according to sources: Anna Kaplan, Kevin Thomas, and John Brooks. None of them have co-sponsored the legislation or said much publicly about it. All won highly competitive general elections in 2018 and will likely face well-funded Republicans in 2020; all represent districts where Donald Trump has significant popularity.
Suburban and rural Democrats have long worried about backlash over supporting driver’s licenses for people who aren’t in the country legally. Republican lawmakers are criticizing the current legislation for prohibiting the DMV from providing law enforcement agents with identifying information like an address or social security number unless the agent has a warrant or subpoena specifically requesting that information.
Former Governor Eliot Spitzer attempted to change the state law over a decade ago but met resistance from the Republican-controlled State Senate and county clerks of both parties, including Kathy Hochul, who is now Cuomo’s lieutenant governor. Hillary Clinton, then a New York senator, though she later backed the policy when she ran for president in 2016.
Another obstacle for the legislation had been Cuomo, who said he would sign a driver’s license bill if it hit his desk. Cuomo’s public support had been far more muted than his fight for other measures impacting immigrants, like the DREAM Act, a bill guaranteeing tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants that passed the legislature earlier this year.
Several months ago, Cuomo privately told several Senate Democrats from swing districts not to support driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, warning of political blowback. (Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi later tweeted that our report was “garbage.”) Recently, the Times reported he had done the same with the fight to legalize marijuana, telling legislators behind the scenes they should beware the fallout if pot was legalized in the budget.
The anti-Green Light lobbying efforts from Cuomo seem to have wound down, though advocates remain wary of the governor’s office. A spokesperson for Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi, pointed Gothamist to a radio interview Cuomo did on Friday, in which he said he supported driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
“I want to make sure the people on the road have a driver's license and took the test and are qualified,” Cuomo told WXXI’s Evan Dawson. “Short answer is yes. I support it. It is very controversial, but people often overlook the public safety benefit, especially in the midst of this whole immigration debate.