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Advocates for undocumented workers obtaining driver’s licenses call on Cuomo to act

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
Members of the Workers' Center of Central New York and others rally outside the Park Central Presbyterian Church in Syracuse.

As the New York State Fair gets underway, immigration rights advocates are calling attention to the need for undocumented farm workers to be able to drive. Undocumented workers are currently barred from obtaining a driver’s license. 

Victor Hernandez, a dairy farm worker in upstate New York, said when he got into accidents while on the job, the owner of the farm, his boss, never took him to a hospital. He said if he had access to a driver’s license, he could have gone to the hospital immediately instead of waiting three days later and paying someone to take him. Hernandez called it an injustice.

Undocumented immigrants in New York used to be able to apply for a driver’s license but that ended after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2007, Gov. Elliott Spitzer approved allowing it again, but reversed the decision soon after because of pressure. Now, supporters of the Green Light campaign want Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign an executive order. While there is legislation in the Assembly, it did not come up for a vote yet this year.

Rebecca Fuentes with the Workers' Center of Central New York said two months ago, a family in Camillus were detained and the father arrested for driving without a license.

"If he would have had a driver's license, then there would have been no reason for the police to stop them further," Fuentes said. "Now we have a situation where people who were contributing to the economy of the state, now they're seperated. The community has to help this family, which we are all doing, but it's unnecessary because they were doing fine."  

Rachel May, who is running in the Democratic primary against state Sen. Dave Valesky, said it is an incredible hardship for those who are undocumented. She recalled visiting dairy farms in central New York a few years ago and meeting with workers.

“One of the things we did was bring them bicycles because they had no access to grocery stores or hospitals or the basic needs," May said. "Here were people who were working 13 hours a day, and I couldn’t even imagine how they then would get on a bicycle in the hills and valleys of central New York and go to these distant grocery stores.”

Advocates also called on Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh for his support. The Walsh administration said they are reviewing the proposal.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.