Immigrant license law draws local ire

State Sen. Patty Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, pictured above, is one of Oswego County's state representatives who have come out in full-throated opposition to a new law passed Monday that allows people who entered the United States illegally to obtain state driver's licenses.

ALBANY — Oswego County’s state legislators are decrying a new law that allows immigrants who entered the United States illegally to obtain New York driver’s licenses.

The Driver’s License Accessible and Privacy Act, referred to as the Green Light NY Act, passed the Democrat-controlled state Senate on Monday afternoon and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed it shortly thereafter.

The law, debated in the capitol for more than a decade, permits individuals to apply for a New York driver’s license using foreign documentation. A privacy provision prohibits government officials from disclosing identifying information of applicants, in an effort to prevent the list from being used by federal immigration enforcement.

It squeaked through the Senate in a narrow 33-29 vote with no Republicans supporting. Democrats have a stranglehold on Empire State government, controlling both houses of the Legislature as well as the governor’s mansion.

Since its inception earlier this year, the measure has been met with swift and pointed local reaction. The Oswego County Legislature in January passed a resolution opposing Green Light NY and state representatives are calling the law a gross mistake.

“My constituents want tax relief, flood relief, to make it easier to do business in New York, not licenses for undocumented aliens,” said Assemblyman Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, reached by phone at the capitol on Tuesday. “Is this the priority we really want to set with two days left in session?”

Barclay said a number of “reasonable security risks” were not addressed, including New York breaking from the 16 other states to offer licenses to undocumented immigrants by not applying any type of modification to the licenses.

“In other states that have done this, they’ve put some restrictions and requirements on, but we haven’t done any of that,” Barclay said. “If we want to provide that privilege of driving to someone traditionally not allowed to have it, we have to put some restrictions on it.”

State Sen. Patty Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, also took issue with the timing of the bill.

“Instead of using the last few days of session ensuring New York state becomes a better place for both small businesses and taxpayers, this legislature has used this limited time focusing on providing those who are in our country illegally with driver licenses,” said Ritchie. The 2019 legislative session ends this week.

Ritchie has been on the front lines of the issue since she publicly opposed a similar measure in 2007 led by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer. She said Monday Green Light NY would “increase the likelihood of voter fraud” and “saddle local governments with another mandate.”

“Most Department of Motor Vehicle offices will need to hire new staff to handle the influx of requests for licenses,” said Ritchie, who previously served as the St. Lawrence County Clerk and as such, oversaw the county’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

DMV offices are likely to be the government entity most affected by the Green Light NY legislation and Oswego County Clerk Michael Backus Monday night reacted coolly to the bill’s passage.

“The divide between upstate New York and downstate has never been more clear than on the debate surrounding licenses for ‘undocumented residents,’” Backus said. “In watching the vote tonight, the only thing bipartisan was the vote against the legislation.”

Backus’ office employs 21 clerks across three DMV sites and handles all Department of Motor Vehicles operations in addition to processing passport and pistol applications, notary public services, uniform commercial code and all maps filed in Oswego County, among many other services.

The County Clerk’s office last year returned $1.6 million to taxpayers but is prohibited from releasing specific information on how many or types of driver’s licenses it issues, Backus said.

While rumblings have emerged from some County Clerk offices around the state about the possibility of defying the new law, Backus said he wouldn’t be party to an upstate insurrection.

“As County Clerk, I have sworn an oath to uphold both the United States and New York Constitution,” Backus said. “I plan on continuing to do exactly that.”

Assemblyman Brian Manktelow, R-Lyons, called the debate and passage of the Green Light NY Act “extremely frustrating” and said the law would “a whole can of worms,” leaving New Yorkers “vulnerable to voter fraud” and “put[ting] the safety of police officers in jeopardy.”

“I understand the desire to help people but we should not be implementing a law and spending taxpayer dollars to help those who broke the law by being in this country illegally,” Manktelow said in a statement. “We are doing this backwards, providing all of these privileges normally accessible to citizens to illegal immigrants. Instead, we should be helping these illegal immigrants to become legal residents or citizens so they have access to all that the American dream has to offer.”

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