ALBANY — The fate of controversial legislation that allows undocumented immigrants to qualify for New York driver's licenses will likely hinge on future court rulings, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday.
The New York law, enacted this week after heated debate in the Senate, was designed to prevent federal authorities from tapping into state motor vehicle data to identify people who are in the country illegally.
But Cuomo, a Democrat in his third term, said he has concerns about the state's ability to shield that information should the federal government use legal channels to access it.
"What happens when the federal government sends a subpoena and says give us the information,' " Cuomo said in a public radio interview. "Do you now inadvertently turn over a database that the federal government can use for deportation, God forbid?"
The governor also said he expects a "protracted" court battle, with several upstate county clerks who oversee local motor vehicle bureaus declaring they will not process license and registration applications from undocumented immigrants.
"I've seen this movie," Cuomo said. It is uncertain how litigation would be resolved if it is commenced against the state by the clerks, he said. The clerks are independently elected public officials.
The license issue has become a key talking point for many upstate Republicans. On their side are public opinion polls showing most New Yorkers frown on the idea of the state issuing licenses to people who are in the country illegally.
With Democrat lawmakers advocating a measure that would allow automatic voter registration, state GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy said the legislation will "nearly guarantee" that undocumented immigrants would use driver's licenses to participate in state elections.
"They are legalizing rigged elections," Langworthy tweeted.
The county clerks of Clinton, Niagara and Otsego counties -- John Zurlo, Joseph Jastrzemski and Kathy Sinnott Gardner, respectively - have all registered their opposition to the new legislation. They say their county-run motor vehicle bureaus are not equipped to authenticate identification documents from nations outside the United States.
Jastrzemski is among the clerks who says his office simply won't issue licenses to undocumented immigrants.
"I think this is an unconstitutional law, and last but not least, it is a slap at every immigrant who has migrated to our country properly," Jastrzemski said. "I would bend over backwards to help them get a license if they came here legally. But why would you reward someone who is breaking the law in our country with this privilege of driving?"
Supporters of the law,, including Sen. Luis Sepulveda, D-the Bronx, a prime sponsor of the legislation, say they would like to see Cuomo use his executive powers to take action against any clerk who refuses to process licenses for undocumented immigrants.
State Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, said the legislation is "well crafted and contains ample legal protections."
Advocates for the measure estimate more than 250,000 people will now be qualified for licenses as a result of the "Green Light" legislation.
Cuomo said the threat of a lawsuit from county clerks will likely suppress the number of people who exercise their new right to apply for a license.
"We're off to the legal races ,and they (the clerks) will be sure you're not going to see a phalanx of people filing into DMV offices to sign up for the driver's license until they know whether or not it's going to be turned over to the federal government." Cuomo said.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.