By Denis Slattery
Undocumented immigrants will have access to driver's licenses under a law green-lighted by the Legislature on Monday and signed by Gov. Cuomo hours after he'd tried to tap the brakes on the controversial measure.
Cuomo has repeatedly expressed support for the bill -- but raised last-minute concerns Monday about whether the information about undocumented immigrants gathered by the state DMV could be obtained by federal officials and used for immigration enforcement.
"You create a driver's license for undocumented people, you just have to make sure you do it in a way that the feds don't come in the next day and access that database with the exact opposite intention," Cuomo told WAMC.
As lawmakers debated the bill, the Cuomo administration's top lawyer sent a letter to state Solicitor General Barbara Underwood seeking her legal opinion on whether the measure could expose undocumented immigrants to federal immigration enforcement.
"Obviously in responding to this question, we ask that you assume a Federal legal challenge to such a New York law should it be enacted, and take into consideration similar laws or circumstances in other states, as well as our current data sharing process with the Federal Government," Cuomo's counsel Alphonso David wrote.
"Why give Trump a list of undocumented immigrants?" Cuomo mused at an unrelated press conference.
Attorney General Letitia James responded to the inquiry with a terse defense of the measure, calling it not only constitutional, but "well-crafted."
"The legislation is well-crafted and contains ample protections for those who apply for driver's licenses," James said in a statement. "If this bill is enacted and challenged in court, we will vigorously defend it."
Overcoming the governor's qualms, Republican opposition and the reservations of moderate members concerned about the policy's unpopularity in upstate and suburban districts, Senate Democrats approved the bill with 33 votes.
"By passing this needed legislation, we are growing our economy while at the same time making our roads safer," Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said. "This is the right step forward for New York State as we continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform on the federal level."
Twelve states plus the District of Columbia have similar laws.
Supporters say the so-called 'Green Light' bill will make more than 265,000 people eligible for licenses and improve road safety by making non-citizens who drive take road tests and get insurance and annual vehicle inspections.
"Today's vote shows that we as New Yorkers are committed to the dignity and safety of all our community members, especially the most marginalized among us," said bill sponsor Sen. Luis Sepulveda (D-Bronx). "We are taking a stand for the rights of immigrants in the time when their livelihoods are being threatened and degraded to extreme degrees."
Before 2001, undocumented residents in New York could get driver's licenses if they passed the required tests. The issue has remained deeply divisive since former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's abandoned executive order that would have offered licenses to non-citizens in 2007.
Advocates argued that the governor's sudden concern about data was misplaced because the bill was crafted with the issue in mind.
"I think that those concerns are a bit disingenuous considering if he'd read the bill he'd see that the 'Green Light' New York bill has some of the strongest data protections in the nation," Murad Awawadeh, the vice president of advocacy with the New York Immigrant Coalition. "We've seen what's happened in other states and we wanted to make sure that nothing like that can happen here."
Protections are built into the bill that purposely make it difficult for federal officials to access data collected by the state when someone applies for a license, Awawadeh noted.
Under the bill, which passed the Assembly last week, a license holder must be notified within three days if any request is made to access their personal file and a court order would have to be secured before the state can release a driver's information to the federal government.
The license would also have a stamp on it saying it is not eligible for federal identification purposes and it would not enable a holder to vote.
Some said Cuomo was simply seeking an excuse to shoot down the legislation, calling his support in recent months nothing more than lip service.
"Governor Cuomo is simply trying to block progress because it has not emanated from his office. Immigrant communities and legislative allies have led the way to pass this historic legislation," Javier Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, told the Daily News. "There is no credible case against this bill for immigrants rights reasons, which is why our movement is united in support. The Governor should stop playing games and sign it immediately."
The governor signed the bill on the basis of James' assurance that it protects immigrants, said David, Cuomo's counsel.
"Governor Cuomo has supported this policy for over a decade," David said in a statement. "The key to this bill is not the political intent but the legal effect. We hope the Attorney General's assessment is correct for the safety of the thousands of undocumented individuals who are relying on her legal opinion."
Advocates spent months petitioning lawmakers on the policy, talking up its safety as well as economic benefits at rallies in the Capitol Building and outside the offices of undecided Democrats.
Despite their best efforts, the measure remained deeply divisive across the state and proponents couldn't convince any of the six Democrats representing Long Island districts to vote for it.
"Following countless meetings with stakeholders, residents, and advocates on the implications of this bill, our vote is based on the continued existence of serious concerns raised by stakeholders and law enforcement," the lawmakers said in a statement after the vote.
A Siena poll last week found that 53% of New Yorkers oppose the bill and about 41% support it. That's a drop in opposition from a March poll that found 61% of voters were against the measure.
Proponents, many of whom erupted in cheers and shouts as the roll was called in the Senate chamber, applauded its passage.
"We are glad to see that Gov. Cuomo ultimately did the right thing by quickly signing the Green Light NY bill into law," said Steve Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. "Our New York State electeds have sent a message -- that while Donald Trump and his cronies look to scapegoat immigrants, the Empire State will protect them. We've done that with by restoring driver's licenses to 250,000 New Yorkers, and we're just getting started."
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