ALBANY — After declaring that "I am the left" Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was chided by a progressive group for "throwing cold water" on a controversial new law that allows undocumented immigrants to qualify for state driver's licenses.
Though Cuomo signed the so-called Green Light law opposed by many county clerks, Stephen Choi, director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said that the governor "and his staff have done everything they could to undermine it."
The jab came after Cuomo said in a public radio interview that he is concerned that the federal government will try to acquire New York motor vehicle database information to deport people in the country illegally.
Cuomo, who at times has had a tense relationship with progressive Democrats in the state Legislature, also said he defines being progressive as "making progress," not by "having aspirational goals with no realistic plan or knowledge or analysis."
One day earlier, Cuomo's top aide, Melissa DeRosa, tweeted a provocative comment along with a link to a news story detailing how federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are using facial recognition technology in an attempt to corral undocumented immigrants by reviewing license data.
"Well, well, well," DeRosa commented, without elaboration. Her tweet appeared to buttress Cuomo's contentions that questions remain about whether the new law in New York could be used against immigrants.
On Tuesday, Choi did not mince words.
"We hope the Governor will stop the charade of scaring hardworking immigrants into staying in the shadows by continuing to evoke the ICE boogeyman," Choi said. "If he has that much time on his hands, we can think of plenty of things he still needs to do before the summer ends."
The driver's license law is slated to take effect Dec. 14. While county clerks in Niagara, Clinton, Otsego and many other counties have voiced opposition to it, they oversee motor vehicle departments that process state license and registration applications and renewals.
The law was formally challenged in federal court by an upstate Democrat, Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns.
His suit maintains that federal law overrides the state law, and the Green Light legislation requires clerks to violate their oaths by issuing licenses to undocumented people. The lawsuit names Cuomo and state Attorney General Letitia James. The latter has opined that the law meets constitutional standards.
Cuomo said that he has supported making undocumented immigrants eligible for licenses for more than a decade. He said he anticipates President Donald Trump, a native New Yorker who has expanded efforts to halt illegal immigration, is "going to get more aggressive" in seeking access to state motor vehicle databases.
"You'll see it play out in the courts, whether or not a state can stop the federal government from accessing its law enforcement databases," the governor said.
He added: "It's going to be a very tough legal question."
Republicans are expected to seize on the issue in targeting upstate Democratic lawmakers representing swing districts. Statewide polling shows most New Yorkers oppose the Green Light legislation, with opposition strong in the upstate region.
Senate GOP Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, said Democrats who backed the law "ignored the overwhelming majority of their own constituents."
Advocates for extending licenses to undocumented people argue the law will improve public safety and addresses the fact that hundreds of thousands of undocumented people are working in New York and need to drive to support their families.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org