Cheers and screams bounced off the walls of the Capitol Building’s Senate Chamber when the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, also known as Green Light NY, was passed by the state Legislature in June. Although the bill was signed into law the same day, Green Light continues to face challenges.
It took countless hours of lobbying and organizing, plus a statewide coalition of elected officials, organizations and businesses, to pass the bill, which gives undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses. Even then, the bill — commonly described as controversial — passed in the Senate by only four votes.
The new law has already been targeted by two federal lawsuits from county clerks in Upstate New York, with other county clerks vowing to not issue licenses to undocumented immigrants come December, when the law goes into effect. Republican state senators have proposed legislation to protect Department of Motor Vehicles employees from termination if they decide not to follow the new law. Even proponents for Green Light have raised concerns about the implementation of the law to Mark Schroeder, the commissioner for the state DMV, who has remained radio silent on the issue.
“There are definitely challenges both theoretically and legally,” said Bryan MacCormack, executive director of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement and an organizer in the Green Light NY Coalition. “But in our organization, we don’t have any doubt that the law is going to be upheld.”
Dalila Yeend and her two kids were on their way to dinner at their favorite neighborhood joint, Friendly’s, when she got pulled over by for rolling through a stop sign in Troy. What was a routine traffic stop turned into a nightmare.
Upon learning that the 36-year-old mother had a final order of removal for missing a prior court appearance, the police officer took Yeend to a nearby precinct and called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Yeend was sent to a detention center in Batavia, and kept there for three months.
Yeend’s mother came up from South Carolina to care for her then 9- and 11-year-old children.
“Thankfully they were able to understand some of what was going on, but obviously they were deeply affected by it,” Yeend said.
When she was released and her immigration case dismissed, Yeend decided to become more active in immigrants’ rights “to make sure something like that didn’t happen to somebody else.”
An estimated 265,000 undocumented immigrants, including 64,000 in the Hudson Valley and Northern and Western New York, are expected to seek driver’s licenses within the first three years of Green Light, according to the left-leaning Fiscal Policy Institute. The law is expected to generate $83 million in revenue the first year, and $57 million each year after that.
Yet Yeend’s county clerk is the second one to file a federal lawsuit challenging Green Light.
Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola filed the lawsuit on July 24 against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James and Schroeder. His lawsuit came about two weeks after that of Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns.
“County clerks are separate elected officials, we take an oath of office to support the Constitution,” Merola said. “It isn’t about giving (undocumented immigrants) the right to be on the road — even though I think it’s a privilege not a right — it’s about voting. People will be able to register to vote.”
Other opponents of the law have voiced the same concern, saying that with customer-facing devices, DMV employees won’t be able to stop someone from registering to vote.
Green Light supporters, however, dismiss the argument as fear mongering, bringing up that non-citizens have been obtaining driver’s licenses for years without registering to vote.
In July, the Rensselaer County Board of Elections threatened to send all voter registration data to ICE. The New York Immigration Coalition and Citizen Action of New York filed a lawsuit against the election board July 26, citing the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which bars states from disclosing the location where someone registered to vote.
Regardless, Merola simply is “not comfortable with giving somebody a license who is in this country illegally.”
“I’m hoping the law is going to stop this,” he said.
Earlier this month, Republican legislators from Long Island sponsored legislation that would protect DMV employees from termination if they refuse to implement the new law.
“This legislation would protect our employees who act in good faith to follow federal law instead of abetting illegal behavior,” State Sen. John Flanagan, R-2, said in a press release.
The bill would have the state reimburse DMV workers for any legal representation they pursue.
“They profess to be the part of law and order, yet he’s proposing a bill that would pay the legal fees of a state official that breaks the law,” said state Sen. Luis Sepúlveda, D-32, who sponsored the Green Light bill. “Flanagan and other members of his party want to circumvent democracy.”
Michael Cianfrini, Genessee County Clerk, said he supports the proposed legislation but “it’s unfortunate that county clerks and employees are being put in a position where they would have to defend themselves against state action anyway.”
Cianfrini is one of multiple county clerks who have vowed to not issue licenses to undocumented immigrants come December.
Although his county has a number of undocumented immigrants who are integral to the farming industry, Cianfrini said he doesn’t believe the pros of giving them access to licenses — such as more insured drivers on the roads, fewer hit-and-run crashes and more New York state-inspected vehicles on the roads — outweigh the cons.
“My problem with implementing the law comes with its unconstitutionality,” he said.
Jefferson County Clerk Gizelle Meeks said she opposes the law because of how it was written, yet she would still enforce it.
“I taught my children that even if you don’t agree with the law you have to obey it,” she said. “I respect the county clerks who have taken a stance and filed lawsuits, but it’s hard to challenge something that’s already been made into law. At this point, we have to push for a seat at the table with the DMV.”
It’s not uncommon for Holly Tanner, the Columbia County clerk, to have lines of people looking for DMV services snaking out her building doors — particularly as New Yorkers rush to get the Real IDs and enhanced licenses by October.
With Green Light, Tanner is worried about her already understaffed and overworked office becoming even more overwhelmed. Tanner was one of 51 clerks who collaborated to send Schroeder a letter in August detailing a list of questions and concerns about how the law can be most effectively and safely rolled out in December.
“We haven’t heard a lot from the State DMV so that in and of itself is a concern,” she said. “The clock is ticking.”
The letter listed nearly 50 questions and comments, ranging from how to prevent unlawful voter registration, to training employees to detect whether foreign documents are fraudulent, to providing local offices with financial and linguistic resources.
The Green Light NY Coalition responded with their own letter, agreeing that there needs to be timely information on how the law will be implemented.
“There are some concerns in the county clerks’ letter that are completely legitimate and we 100 percent support: language access, real concern, training, real concern. Those are things we should be working through together,” MacCormack said. “And then our letter just kind of debunk some of the more anti immigrant legislation as well.”
Schroeder’s spokesman said he could not comment on the issue due to the ongoing lawsuits.
Sepúlveda described the lawsuits and letter from the NYS Association of County Clerks as a “smoke screen.”
“The coalition is still strong,” he said. “Even if I have to go with an undocumented immigrant in Rensselaer County and stand with them in line to get a license, I’ll do it. We’re not going to put up with this nonsense.”