Things That Matter

Some New York County Clerks Plan To Break New Law, Won’t Issue Drivers Licenses To Undocumented Migrants

The “Green Light Law” passed in New York last June, making it one of 14 states to allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses. The passage was believed to be a landmark victory as the measure was stalled for over two decades. However, some county clerks who reside in the more conservative areas of New York have resisted the policy. Some even say they will refuse to give undocumented immigrants their licenses in protest. 

The stance seems similar to one Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis made in 2015 when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Davis was ordered to issue the licenses by a U.S. District Court and when she defied them, she was jailed for contempt of court. 

New York County Clerks rebel against a new law allowing undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses.

Some county clerks have threatened to even call Immigrations and Customs Enforcement on undocumented immigrants who try to obtain licenses. 

“If you come into my facility and you have done something illegal, it is my obligation to report you to the appropriate authorities, whether you’re a citizen or not,” Robert L. Christman, the Allegany County clerk, told the New York Times.

A federal judge threw out one of three lawsuits filed by the dissident clerks on Friday, claiming Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns did not prove any suffering due to the law. 

“It is apparent Plaintiff disagrees with the Green Light Law,” Judge Elizabeth Wolford wrote in her decision. “But the mere disagreement with a duly-enacted state statute does not entitle anyone — even an elected official — to seek intervention from a federal court.”

Attorney General Letitia James argued that the “Green Light Law” is a benefit to public safety. 

“The law aims to make our roads safer, our economy stronger, and allows immigrants to come out of the shadows to sign up as legal drivers in our state,” she said in a statement. “That’s why the claims made in this lawsuit not only disregarded these simple truths but were misinformed and disregarded the privacy rights of New Yorkers.”

Immigrant advocates believe the rebellion is a scare tactic to thwart immigrants away from the service. 

“This is a scare tactic,” said Jackie Vimo, a policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, told the Times. “They are mirroring the politics of fear we’ve seen nationally with the Trump administration.”

Clerks claim the influx of immigrants will overburden the system.

The clerks claimed that the law would overburden the system which would incur new costs like hiring additional workers and training staff to understand and process foreign paperwork. Mostly, they were outspoken about not wanting to serve immigrants. 

“You are asking me to give a government document to somebody who is in our country breaking federal law. That is 100 percent wrong,’’ said Joseph A. Jastrzemski, the Niagara County clerk. “It compromises my oath of office to defend the Constitution.”

However, proponents of the law say the revenue from the new applications would pay for the additional costs.

“The Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning research institute, estimated that the state would earn$57 million in annual revenue and $26 million in one-time revenue from driver’s licenses, new car purchases, registrations and sales and gas taxes,” according to the New York Times. 

A law over two decades in the making has immigrant advocates stunned. 

“I grew up poor and undocumented and never imagined that one day I could help change the history of our state. Gracias mami for your sacrifice. We got Drivers Licenses for all!” NY State Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz tweeted. “After today, no child will have to know the fear of emergency planning in case mom or dad are picked up by ICE.”

In 2007, Governor Elliot Spitzer issued an executive order that allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses. After opposition from Senator Hillary Clinton and Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand along with bipartisan lawmakers and clerks, Spitzer rescinded the order just two months later. 

“For a long time, driver’s licenses had been the third rail of New York state politics,” said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “[This] put to rest the notion that you couldn’t do anything controversial around immigration.”

A driver’s license can help shield immigrants from deportation by allowing them to provide identification during things like routine traffic stops. It can also give them better access to housing, jobs, and public services. Oregon and New Jersey have begun to consider similar measures and discussions have initiated in six other states as well. 

“We are seeing momentum growing right now, especially following New York where it has been such a long and hard-fought struggle,” Vimo said. “This really changes political calculations and removes a lot of the excuses other states had not to pass similar legislation.”

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