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Assembly approves bill to grant driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants


After a spirited debate, the New York State Assembly on Wednesday approved a bill, 86-47, to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. It’s not a done deal, though, as it also faces resistance in the state Senate.

On the Assembly floor, opponents raised a number of concerns over the measure.

Assemblyman Robert Smullen, a Republican from Herkimer and a former Marine, said he worries the licenses could provide a back door for criminals and even terrorists to obtain documents for nefarious purposes.

"I understand that the chances of a terrorist invading our security measures are slim, and we would desirably want them to be so to not have a repeat of September 11," Smullen said. "But I’m really concerned that we're going to create a new avenue for someone to evade the law and obtain other legal documents."

Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican from Staten Island, said the state’s association of county clerks is against the bill because they do not believe they have the technical savvy to verify foreign passports.

"We have to be mindful of those who also want to do us harm," Malliotakis said. "That is something I don’t think this bill takes into account."

Assemblyman Mark Walczyk of Watertown said he’s heard concerns from his local Board of Elections about the possibility of illegal voting if undocumented immigrants are inadvertently signing up at the DMV to vote.

"They don’t have the ability to purge those records of noncitizens," Walczyk said. 

Bill sponsor Marcos Crespo, a Bronx Democrat, said opponents are making an "erroneous connection" when they link the measure to a potential act of terrorism. And he thinks Board of Elections staffers are sophisticated enough to catch any errors.

He also said undocumented immigrants are unlikely to want to vote illegally because that would be a crime and would subject them to ICE and possible deportation.

"I assure you, there is not a single individual in the immigrant community who wants to put themselves at risk of deportation, and would not seek to do that," Crespo said.

Supporters of the bill, including Democrat Phil Ramos of Long Island, said the measure would make all New Yorkers safer, because undocumented immigrants would learn to drive and would buy car insurance. He said states that already have the law have found a drop in hit-and-run accidents because undocumented drivers are no longer tempted to flee the scene of an accident.

Ramos, who was formerly a police officer, said the driver's licenses would actually help law enforcement if an undocumented immigrant were involved in a crime because police would have their name and address.

He accused opponents of "slicing and dicing" the bill to hide what he said is their real reason against it.

"We know what it’s about; it’s about the people we are giving licenses to. Just say it," said Ramos, who added that immigrants have been "demonized" by some politicians who seek to gain the anti-immigrant vote.

"Some people don’t want immigrants to get licenses," Ramos said. 

Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, a Democrat from Queens who was undocumented when she was a teenager, said her support of the bill has generated hate mail and even death threats.

Cruz, whose mother was present for the debate, said her mom had to turn down jobs when Cruz was growing up because she could only work at a job on a subway or bus line. She said that pushed her family "deeper into poverty."

She said her mother’s inability to drive led her to miss important events in Cruz’s life, including when she received honors at her college graduation.

"I stood on stage alone," Cruz said. "Because my mother couldn’t attend the ceremony. She wouldn’t be able to make it to the ceremony after work using the subway."

The measure faces an uncertain future in the state Senate, where some moderate Democrats have reservations.

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.