The State Senate voted narrowly on Monday night to approve a bill that will afford undocumented immigrants an opportunity to obtain a driver’s license. The vote closely followed the bill’s passage in the Assembly, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed it into law soon after the Senate’s action.
The new law, which will take effect in December, will have a measurable local impact, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said at the East Hampton Town Board’s meeting on Tuesday. “This was a very important effort,” he said, “and affects the East End very much. We have a number of people in town who rely on vehicles to get around, and we don’t really have a public transportation system to afford those people access to work, to doctors’ appointments, to grocery stores, to schools and whatnot. We think this is an effort that will result in safer roadways for all — more licensed drivers, insured drivers, better drivers.”
The state is in the process of developing three levels of driver’s licenses. The new law permits undocumented immigrants to obtain a “standard” license, the lowest of the three. It would grant full driving privileges while stating on its face that it is not acceptable as federal identification. It would not provide a path to citizenship.
The state previously allowed undocumented residents to drive, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, then-Gov. George Pataki, citing a threat of terrorist infiltration, issued an executive order requiring would-be drivers to prove their legal status before obtaining licenses.
Supporters say that the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, known as the Green Light bill, will result in more drivers who are properly licensed, educated, and tested; a greater likelihood that an immigrant driver is operating a registered, inspected, and insured vehicle, and increased cooperation with law enforcement not only for traffic safety but also for crime.
The town board previously adopted a resolution supporting the goals of the legislation. At its May 7 meeting, Mark Butler, representing East End for Opportunity, a nonprofit organization formed to assist town residents of limited financial means to obtain legal help, cited numerous studies to demonstrate the positive effects of such legislation.
The American Automobile Association, Mr. Butler said, stated that undocumented immigrants are five times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than licensed drivers, due to a lack of driver education. Statistics from New Mexico and Utah showed that fatalities decreased after undocumented immigrants obtained driver’s licenses, he told the board, and that the percentage of uninsured motorists declines after a state allows undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses. One study showed hit-and-run accidents decreased, likely because unlicensed, undocumented immigrants are more likely to flee even if they themselves are the victims, whereas a licensed driver who can prove residency and identity can be given a warning or ticket.
“Our local economy depends on immigrants being economically self-sufficient,” Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele stated last Thursday. “When residents can purchase and register cars legally, they are able to more fully participate in the community and patronize local businesses.” Long Island’s county governments are expected to bring in $2.6 million every year in new sales tax and vehicle-use fees, he said, and the state would receive an estimated $57 million in new annual revenue.
At the town board’s meeting on Tuesday, Andrew Strong, the general counsel to Organizacion Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, a nonprofit organization that promotes social, economic, cultural, and educational development for the region’s Latino communities, commended the board “for getting ahead of this” with its resolution supporting the goals of the Green Light bill. “Our roads are safer as a result” of the bill’s passage, he said. “And I think our humanity as a town is better reflected. Mothers are able to drive kids to school, families are able to get groceries, people are able to get to work, and they are able to do it legally, once they get a license, so they are able to orient with police instead of having to break the law every time they get into a vehicle.”
The board’s support of the bill is “extremely meaningful to the population we represent, and it’s extremely meaningful to me as a resident of this town,” Mr. Strong, who is also the East Hampton Town Democratic Committee’s candidate for town justice, said.
Another Democratic candidate, Tim Garneau, who is running for trustee, told the board that Mr. Strong’s remarks at a meeting of the Town Democratic Committee, of which Mr. Garneau is a member, were the impetus for his decision to “start a trust-building coalition in East Hampton.” He joined the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, he told the board, and worked with officials including Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, Chief Michael Sarlo of the Town Police Department, and Mr. Thiele to ensure law enforcement’s support for the bill. “Thank you to everyone on the Anti-Bias Task Force and to Kathee and the town board” for supporting the memorializing resolution,” he said. “As a local government, we moved the needle on this.”