Urge Access to Driver's Licenses Regardless of Status

Representatives of Make the Road New York, a citizens group that seeks legislation allowing New York residents access to state driver’s licenses regardless of their immigration status, appeared at a forum at the Bridgehampton National Bank last Thursday, explaining they will work with local groups such as Organizacion-Latino Americano of Eastern Long Island and Progressive East End Reformers to get the law reinstated after a 13-year lapse. 

Eliana Fernandez, a statewide lead organizer for Make the Road, and  Gabriela Andrade, who focuses on Suffolk County, described how the more progressive majority recently elected to the State Senate has encouraged activists in a coalition called Greenlight New York to think the time is right to revisit the driver’s license issue. 

The effort has languished since 2007, when then-governor Eliot Spitzer unsuccessfully tried three times to reinstate driving licenses for noncitizens. The privilege had been rescinded in New York in part because of security concerns in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Greenlight New York estimates such a law, if passed today, would affect more than 700,000 people in the state who are 16 and older. It also says it could be a significant revenue generator for the state, insurance customers, car dealerships, and other businesses that sell to undocumented residents or rely on immigrant labor.

In 2007, Mr. Spitzer estimated $120 million in insurance premium savings alone for New Yorkers, citing statistics that show unlicensed drivers are five times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than licensed drivers. 

The Fiscal Policy Institute concluded $57 million a year in recurring revenue would be generated in New York, in addition to a one-time $27 million bump in state revenues for new driver’s licenses and registrations.

The legislation has widespread support. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would sign the bill if it passes the Assembly and Senate, and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand are among those in favor of the measure.

On the East End, Ms. Andrade said, such a law would particularly help families and workers who now struggle to complete routine obligations like getting to work, school, or doctor’s appointments because they have to rely on public transportation, which is spotty at best. 

She noted that these residents sometimes take the risk of driving without a license. But the fallout can be far more serious than just getting a ticket.

“The main pipeline that leads to deportation under this [federal] administration is driving without a driver’s license,” Ms. Fernandez said.

Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA, and Kathryn Szoka of PEER, which hosted last week’s event, said their organizations are committed to helping get the law passed. 

Ms. Fernandez and Ms. Andrade also pointed out that individuals and organizations can get involved in various ways, starting with joining a Greenlight New York petition drive, contacting state legislators and law enforcement, or urging local business people, community leaders, and chambers of commerce to publicly support the legislation. 

More details can be found at GreenlightNewYork.org.

“We’ve been hearing from a lot of elected officials that there’s not enough education about the driver’s license campaign, and so they want to hear more, not just from the immigrant community and affected people, but from everybody in the state,” Ms. Andrade said.

PEER, which describes itself as “a multi-issue grassroots organization committed to advocating for social, racial, environmental, and economic justice for all,” has emphasized immigrant rights this year, Ms. Szoka, a co-founder of the group, said. 

Speaking in an interview after the forum, she said one of the reasons raising awareness about the driver’s license initiative was vital is the many misunderstandings surrounding the effort.

   “One of the misconceptions is maybe these immigrant license holders would get all kinds of aid or help, and that’s not the case at all,” Ms. Szoka said. “The standard license would be strictly for driving. It doesn’t allow you to fly on an airline. It doesn’t allow you to go into a federal building. It doesn’t allow you to get any aid from state or federal governments. It just allows you to drive a car legally. And it would make it possible again for everyone to own a car legally, get insurance. So it’s very sensible.” 

On another level it’s also a human rights issue, Ms. Szoka added. “You should not face deportation for driving to your place of work — that’s way too high a consequence in the United States of America,” she said.

Ms. Perez said OLA already has been working with town boards and East End law enforcement, urging officials to recognize they and judges have discretion in how driving-without-a-license offenses are punished. OLA also has been seeking local legislation and formal commitments from authorities stating, for example, that they will not enforce administrative warrants for arrests that could throw unlicensed drivers into deportation proceedings because of the Suffolk County jail affiliation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

“We’ve actually had a good dialogue on this so far, and we will look to keep that dialogue going because we can’t afford not to,” Ms. Perez said. “This is an issue that affects the health and safety of everyone who lives here — Latino, non-Latino, young, old, families.”

Undocumented residents can get driver’s licenses in 12 states — Connecticut, Delaware, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Vermont, and Washington, plus the District of Columbia. The same was true in New York until 2002, or shortly after the 9/11 attacks.