ALBANY — Though a measure allowing undocumented immigrants to get New York driver's licenses has already been enacted, the political fight over the issue is far from over, with GOP lawmakers pushing a bill that would protect motor vehicle clerks who refuse to process the applications.
State Senate GOP Leader John Flanagan, R-Long Island, accused the Democrats who promoted the so-called Green Light legislation of embracing "bad policy" that flies in the face of federal immigration statutes.
Flanagan said the new legislation is designed to protect motor vehicles staffers who "act in good faith to follow federal law instead of abetting illegal behavior."
"It should not be up to our DMV workers to ferret out potentially fraudulent foreign documents that can open up our voting system to abuse," said Flanagan.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the license bill into law in June after the state Senate, in an unusually close vote, approved the legislation, 33 to 29. In a sign that the contentious issue did not have the enthusiastic support of the state's largest suburban region, six Long Island Democrats joined GOP senators in voting against the measure.
While Cuomo called himself a supporter, he had also stated he was concerned federal officials might try to access New York motor vehicle data to round up immigrants for potential deportation.
A leading advocate for extending eligibility for licenses to the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants residing in New York, Steve Choi, director of the New York Immigration Coalition, contended Flanagan's legislation was dead on arrival at the statehouse.
"Thankfully, with Republicans in the minority, we all see this as nothing more than a play to grab headlines while stoking anti-immigrant fears," Choi said. "It’s schemes like this that landed them in the minority and why they’re destined to stay there."
The state GOP, now led by Nick Langworthy of Erie County, is expected to use the license issue in 2020 to target Democratic lawmakers in swing districts. A statewide poll conducted by Siena College reported in June that voters frown on the measure by a 53 to 41 percent margin. The opposition was most intense in the upstate region.
While the issuance of driver's licenses is a state government function, many of the motor vehicle bureau offices across upstate New York are overseen by county clerks who have registered their opposition to the move to make undocumented immigrants eligible.
Niagara County Clerk Joseph Jastrzemski, said he welcomed Flanagan's legislation, saying, "I'm definitely not going to put my staff members in a position where thy would be breaking a federal statute."
He said he was also concerned that the Green Light law will saddle county governments with the cost of providing interpreters for applicants not fluent in the English language, with the processing of the paperwork slowing down operations.
Otsego County Clerk Kathy Sinnott Gardner and Clinton County Clerk John Zurlo are among the other clerks who have declared their opposition to the new law.
Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, who voted against the license legislation, said the motor vehicle clerks deserve to be shielded from the potential fallout if they question the documentation submitted by undocumented immigrants seeking official state identification.
On another front involving vehicle registrations, Cuomo's move to impose a $25 fee for updating license plates, with another $20 fee for keeping the same plate number, is stoking new opposition, with several county clerks slated to speak out against the plan today in Saratoga County.
Clerks from Saratoga, Herkimer, Columbia, Warren and Rensselaer counties — all of whom run motor vehicle offices — are questioning what is expected to be a $70 million "windfall" for state government as a result of the fees, according to a media advisory from Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Saratoga.
Cuomo has suggested the fee is needed as the state puts into operation new cashless tolling technology on the state Thruway.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .