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Immigrant driver’s license bill advances in Assembly

Karen DeWitt

Democrats in the State Assembly say they plan to move ahead with a bill to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants in New York. But the Assembly speaker said he wants to educate people about the benefits of the measure first.

Speaker Carl Heastie said Democrats, who are in the majority in his house, have the votes to pass what’s known as the Green Light Bill to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a standard driver’s license.

“We are supportive of moving the driver’s licenses for all (legislation),” Heastie said.

The development was first reported in the nonprofit online news outlet, THE CITY.

The majority of the public is not in favor of the measure, though. A Siena College poll conducted in mid-April found that 55% of New Yorkers are opposed. Republicans and independents are strongly against the proposal, and just slightly more than half of Democratic voters back the bill.

Because of that, Heastie said Democrats want to first conduct an outreach effort to dispel myths and convey what he believes are the benefits of the measure. He said the fees charged for the driver’s licenses would bring in needed state revenue. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, the change could bring in $57 million a year.

Heastie also said a study in California, which allows the licenses, showed they have led to a decrease in hit-and-run accidents, where undocumented drivers without licenses might flee the scene of an accident rather than face police.

“I think if people understood the benefits of doing the driver’s license bill, I think people would be much more understanding and open to having it,” Heastie said.

Besides California, 11 other states and Washington, D.C., allow undocumented immigrants to get licenses.

Supporters plan to be active in the remaining weeks of the legislative session.

A rally at the State Capitol in March was attended by hundreds of undocumented immigrants and their supporters. They chanted, "Sí se puede," or “Yes, it can be done.”

Luis Jimenez, a farmworker who is undocumented, said through a translator that he needs to drive in the rural upstate areas where he helps with the harvests.

“They are very isolated farms, so we need a car, so we can meet our bare necessities, like taking our kids to school, going to the hospital, getting our groceries,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez said some of his work colleagues have ended up in deportation proceedings after being pulled over by police while driving.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he’ll sign the bill if it passes both houses of the Legislature. The measure has a Senate sponsor but has not yet advanced in that chamber.

Opponents include many Republicans in the Legislature. Sen. Daphne Jordan, who represents parts of Saratoga and Rensselaer counties, recently spoke against the measure. She worries the measure could be misused to grant driver’s licenses to criminals, or be a back-door vehicle for illegal voting.

“This is not about immigrants,” Jordan said on April 24. “This is about our laws, what’s legal and protecting our law-abiding citizens.”

Supporters called Jordan’s concerns “scare tactics” and said they have not occurred in the other states where the driver’s licenses are given to the immigrants.

The issue was proposed in 2007 by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat. It sparked controversy and was eventually defeated. Supporters hope that with both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office all controlled by Democrats now, the bill has a better chance of becoming law in 2019.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.