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Immigrant driver's license bill gets a boost

Karen DeWitt
Business Council President Heather Briccetti speaks in favor of the driver's license bill for undocumented immigrants Wednesday at the State Capitol. To her right is Senate sponsor Luis Sepulveda

A leading business group has come out in favor of granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, increasing the chances of the bill’s passage in the state Legislature this year.

Heather Briccetti, president of The Business Council, said reinstituting the policy of issuing New York state driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants will make the roads safer and help businesses that are seeking workers during a labor shortage.

"Our immigration system is broken. This does not fix it, but what it does is it gives undocumented immigrants the opportunity to sit for a test, to get licensed, to get on the road, and to have insurance," Briccetti said. "So that when they are driving in New York, they will be covered." 

The Business Council’s membership includes most major upstate businesses, including Corning and Eastman Kodak, and Briccetti said her group’s support might help provide "cover" for upstate Democrats who may be on the fence over the issue.

"I hope so," Briccetti said. "I think there’s a really easy, valid reason to do this." 

Briccetti was joined by the sponsors of the bills, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo and Sen. Luis Sepulveda. Crespo said the bill has been amended to make it easier for law enforcement to seek DMV records of the immigrants if they are pulled over for traffic infractions.

"It was never the intention to interfere with local law enforcement’s common practice to enforce traffic laws," said Crespo. 

Opponents of the bill, including some county clerks, say granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants diminishes the value of the document to legal residents, could lead to criminals taking advantage of the system and even open a back door to illegal voting. Some county clerks have said they would not grant the licenses if the bill became law.

Sepulveda said those accusations have been disproven. And he said if the clerks refuse to grant the licenses, they should be removed from office.

"The governor has, within the constitutional powers given to him, the right to remove a county clerk that doesn’t follow the law," said Sepulveda, adding that he’s introduced legislation to explicitly allow the governor to remove a county clerk under those circumstances.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was Erie County clerk 12 years ago, when former Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed a similar measure. At the time, Hochul said she would turn over any applicants for the license to immigration authorities, but she now backs granting the licenses.

The bill sponsors said Hochul’s reversal on the issue also helps their cause.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said the new support could help the measure’s chances, but she would not guarantee a vote right now in the Senate.

"We keep talking, we keep pushing," Stewart-Cousins said.

Senate sponsor Sepulveda said that the Democratic Senate is "diverse," and that some of the newly elected Democrats from Long Island still have some concerns. But he said he plans to meet with them over the next few days to try to address that.

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.