Green Light law puts New York in conflict with immigration policies

On Dec. 16, the law allowing undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain a New York State driver’s license went into effect.  The fact that this is now the law is a stunning reversal from 12 years ago when then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed the measure.  Some may recall, Spitzer dropped the proposal due to overwhelming opposition to it from people across the political spectrum — including opposition from leaders in his own party such as Senator Hillary Clinton.  While a large majority of New Yorkers still opposed the law, last June the NYC-dominated legislature along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo went ahead and passed the law despite substantial opposition from upstate legislators.

While many people oppose the law simply on the basis that people who break the law coming to America should not be rewarded with driving privileges, there are other very substantive problems beyond just that.  One is national security.  In order for an undocumented immigrant to obtain a license in New York, he or she must show “proof of identity.”  Proof of identity includes among other things (i) an unexpired foreign passport from the applicant’s country of citizenship or (ii) a valid foreign driver’s license that includes a photo image of the applicant which is either unexpired or expired for less than 24 months.  It is then up to the motor vehicle clerk to determine the validity of the proof of identity prior to issuing the license.  While we have very professional motor vehicle clerks in our state, it is unlikely that any of them are experts on foreign identification.  How are they to judge the authenticity of a foreign passport or driver’s license?  It is not a stretch to imagine someone who wants to do harm to our country being able to obtain official government identification like a New York driver’s license by exploiting this weakness in the system.  Once obtaining the New York driver’s license, one could use it as identification to undertake any sort of nefarious deeds against our country.

Another legitimate concern about allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses is that it could facilitate voter fraud.  Currently, state law requires that an application for a driver’s license include a voter registration application where an applicant simply has to affirm that he or she is a citizen of the United States.  That voter registration is then sent to the county board of elections where the applicant is then registered to vote.  When applying for a driver’s license, if inclined, an undocumented immigrant could simply affirm that he or she is an American citizen and then eventually be registered to vote.  Moreover, once obtaining a driver’s license an undocumented immigrant, if inclined, could go to the Board of Elections and use the driver’s license as identification to register to vote.  While it is true that by affirming that they are American citizens an undocumented immigrant would be breaking the law, it would be highly difficult, especially once they have obtained a driver’s license, for anyone to know their citizenship status or prove it otherwise especially following an election.

There are a number of other issues with this law such as imposition of obstacles on the investigatory powers of law enforcement and the infringement on federal authorities’ ability to enforce immigration laws.  However, what might grind on people the most is the seemingly unfairness of the law.  Every year, some 700,000 immigrants obtain legal citizenship while millions more are allowed legal entry into our country.  By permitting undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses it is unfair to those who have legally gone through the process of naturalization.  As a result, some might be less inclined to seek citizenship if they know they can get all the advantages of citizenship without having to bother with naturalization.

America is a nation of immigrants and we should be proud of our immigrant heritage.  However, that doesn’t mean we, as a state, should try to confer privileges to anyone in the state regardless of their citizenship status.  The idea of providing undocumented immigrants with driver’s licenses was a bad idea when Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed it 12 years ago and it continues to be bad idea now.  If you have any questions or comments on this or any other state issue, or if you would like to be added to my mailing list or receive my newsletter, please contact my office.

Assemblyman Will Barclay can be reached at his district office at 200 N, 2nd St., Fulton, by e-mail at barclaw@nyassembly.gov or by calling (315) 598-5185. 

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