Shortly after I took office as Niagara County clerk in January of 2016, I paid a visit to our county historian’s office. I wanted to get acquainted with the historian’s office staff as they report to me. I ended up getting an education.
Deputy Historian Craig Bacon showed me a 1940s Naturalization Docket, a government book that listed everyone living in the county who became a naturalized U.S. citizen. I was able to touch the spot where my grandfather, Frank Jastrzemski, had recorded his name in the book. As the grandson of immigrants, this was a touching moment for me— and one I reflected on this Independence Day, as I once again was grateful for the journey Frank Jastrzemski made from Poland as the world descended into war.
That’s also why I take great personal umbrage at the way a local activist who’s never met me or spoken with me decided to characterize me for opposing the issuance of drivers licenses to illegal aliens. In his highly personal attack on me, Mr. Jim Schultz decided to characterize me as callous toward the plight of people seeking to enter the United States. To the contrary; I think of my own grandfather and hope our country can be a welcoming place for men and women who, like my grandfather, choose to come here legally. For those who choose to violate our nation’s laws and borders, I have compassion, but I will not allow my office to abet their illegal actions.
Mr. Schultz ascribes the worst of motives here, but the reality is, the federal government passed laws following 9/11 to ensure that drivers licenses were trustworthy forms of identification — a federal standard called “REAL-ID.” If you’ve renewed your drivers license in recent years, you notice it looks a lot different that its predecessors. It contains, among other things, anti-counterfeiting technology. As it is a federally-compliant document, it serves a critical purpose: giving the full faith and credit of Niagara County and New York state to vouching for a person’s identity.
Most of you know your identity is a sacred thing. You have a social security number tied to your credit history. Your drivers license number is tied to those things as well. When visually identical licenses are issued to people who can’t satisfactorily prove they are who they say they are, it cheapens the value of the only reliable and universally accepted photo ID most of us have, in a world where proving your identity is increasingly necessary for anything you want to do.
There are many other reasons I oppose issuing drivers licenses to illegal aliens, but first and foremost, it’s because I am against undermining the reliability of my legal constituents’ photo IDs. I could also list concerns about increasing the access to our roadways for individuals frequently operating without auto insurance, and the very real worries about terrorism that prompted the REAL-ID legislation in the first place. But that’s a discussion for another day.
My grandfather always told me that he came here because in America we had a Constitution that protected the citizens, and that citizenship came with responsibilities as well as rights. He told me that in wartime Poland he’d seen what happened when men stopped respecting the rights of legal citizens and government decided it could do whatever it wanted. To honor my grandfather and the hard, legal journey he made, I will take on the responsibility of fighting Gov. Cuomo’s dangerous scheme to weaken the rights of citizens who are here legally, alongside many other county clerks, including my good friend Mickey Kearns in Erie County. Gov. Cuomo’s radical licensing scheme undermines the oath of office I took to uphold the Constitution my grandfather so believed in. As the grandson of a legal immigrant, I have always been proud to uphold that oath and that Constitution, and as your county clerk, I will continue to do so.
Joseph A. Jastrzemski is the Niagara County clerk.