BUFFALO — A law allowing undocumented immigrants access to obtain driver’s license has been upheld in federal court.
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Wolford ruled Friday to dismiss a lawsuit from Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns against the state that attempted to block the law, known as Green Light New York.
“It is apparent Plaintiff disagrees with the Green Light Law,” Wolford wrote in her decision. “But the mere disagreement with a duly-enacted state statute does not entitle anyone — even an elected official — to seek intervention from a federal court.”
Wolford said Kearns was not the right person to challenge the law because he did not prove any suffering he would experience due to Green Light.
Kearns argued in his suit that under federal law, it is a felony to withhold information about undocumented immigrants from immigration enforcement agencies. Wolford dismissed this argument, saying Kearns had not “identified a nonspeculative scenario in which he could plausibly anticipate being criminally prosecuted...should he comply with the Green Light Law.”
Attorney General Letitia James has consistently argued that the law is beneficial to the public safety and has strong legal grounding.
“The law aims to make our roads safer, our economy stronger, and allows immigrants to come out of the shadows to sign up as legal drivers in our state,” she said in a statement Friday. “That’s why the claims made in this lawsuit not only disregarded these simple truths, but were misinformed and disregarded the privacy rights of New Yorkers.”
State Sen. Luis Sepúlveda, D-32, who sponsored the Green Light bill, said Friday that this was the decision he expected, “but I’m still on Cloud Nine.”
In a tweet, Sepúlveda said he expects full compliance with the law from DMVs and county clerks when Green Light takes effect Dec. 14.
“History, & the law, will not be deterred by politically motivated attempts 2 weaken rights tht are long overdue,” he tweeted.
To Bryan MacCormack, executive director of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement, Wolford’s decision is proof not only of the legality of Green Light, but also of its necessity.
“We believe that this decision will have a positive impact for us on other county officials may consider bringing, such as in Rensselaer County,” he said. “I hope that the anti-immigrant sentiment coming from county DMVs dwindles and they comply with the law.”
Kearns brought forth the lawsuit in July, soon followed by a similar suit from Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola. Merola’s lawsuit was ordered stayed, pending the decision made in Kearns’ suit. Last month, Niagara County also pursued legal action to block Green Light.
While they are the only counties that took legal action, many other clerks have expressed concern over the new law, threatening to turn over information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or simply not comply with the law at all.
Michael Cianfrini, of Genesee County, is one of the clerks who has said he would not issue licenses to undocumented immigrants.
“I’m disappointed,” he said of Wolford’s ruling. “It’s ridiculous to assert county clerks don’t have standing to bring a lawsuit when we are the people specifically affected by this law... (Wolford) is saying county clerks need to wait to be arrested or charged before they have standing.”
Columbia County Clerk Holly Tanner said that if Green Light is upheld in the courts, she will comply with the law.
“We’re a nation of laws,” she said. “I’m just hoping there’s going to be communication on how it’s going to be implemented.”
In August, the state Association of County Clerks sent a letter to Mark Schroeder, the commissioner for the state DMV, detailing concerns it has about the implementation of Green Light. 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.
Nearly a month before the Dec. 14 rollout date for Green Light, the association still hasn’t heard back from the state.
“That’s almost more disconcerting to me,” Tanner said.
Greene County Clerk Marilyn Farrell declined to comment for this story, saying she needs more information about how the law will be rolled out .
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.
Proponents for the law also argue that beside economic benefits, Green Light will create a safer New York with more insured drivers on the roads, fewer hit-and-run crashes and more New York state-inspected vehicles on the roads.
“All New Yorkers will benefit when all parents can drive their kids to school and the doctor or get to work without the threat of detention and deportation. When all NYers can insure and register their vehicles after applying and passing a drivers test,” Anu Joshi, senior director of immigration policy with the New York Immigration Coalition, tweeted Friday afternoon.
St. Lawrence County Clerk Sandra Santamoor and Jefferson County Clerk Gizelle Meeks did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Massarah Mikati covers the New York State Legislature and immigration for Johnson Newspaper Corp. Email her at email@example.com, or find her on Twitter @massarahmikati.