Families throughout New York and across America have been horrified by the inhumane detention of Pablo Villavicencio, who was apprehended by ICE officials when he delivered a pizza to the Fort Hamilton Army base in Brooklyn last week.
Villavicencio’s story is a clear example of how President Trump’s crusade to tear apart immigrant families continues; it underscores the need for Congress to act immediately to stop these attacks on our communities. But his case also reveals a pressing problem in New York that requires immediate attention: the need to restore access to driver’s licenses to all.
Villavicencio is a hardworking Ecuadorian immigrant, a husband of an American citizen, and a father of two young American citizen girls. Driving is essential to his livelihood.
But in New York, undocumented immigrants like him currently cannot obtain a driver’s license — putting them at grave risk of being stopped, flagged for ICE detention and torn from their families. As his wife Sandra said last week: If Villavicencio had had a license to present at the military base, he would still be with his family today.
There is currently legislation in both the Assembly and state Senate to expand access to driver’s licenses to all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status. But passage is unlikely this year. Villavicencio’s case clearly demonstrates that the immigrant community cannot wait.
So we call on Gov. Cuomo to issue an executive order that gives all New Yorkers access to driver’s licenses immediately. Legal experts have made clear that the governor has the authority to do this today. It’s not a legal question; it’s a political one.
Last year, Cuomo issued an executive order forbidding law enforcement officers from inquiring about or disclosing immigration status unless investigating illegal criminal activity. Action on driver’s licenses is equally urgent.
New York enabled driver’s licenses for all until 2001, when Gov. George Pataki changed the policy. Then, Gov. Eliot Spitzer issued an executive order to restore the licenses for undocumented immigrants, only to face a revolt by county clerks, who control the Department of Motor Vehicles in many parts of the states. Spitzer wound up reversing course.
Were Cuomo to act, some clerks would surely refuse to enforce it as they did under Spitzer. If push comes to shove, they will lose in court.
But DMVs in the state’s largest counties are controlled directly by the state. They at least could change their policy immediately, enabling undocumented immigrants from all across the state to get licenses here.
Providing access to driver’s licenses to all New Yorkers would provide security to undocumented New Yorkers with a valid, statewide form of identification. It would also be a boon to the state’s economy; research suggests it would boost the state’s economy by $57 million per year in new revenue and increase public safety for all.
Twelve states — including Vermont, Connecticut and even Utah — as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, are already a step ahead and provide driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status to their residents. It’s time for New York, which has a proud history of advancing pro-immigrant policies, to catch up.
Otherwise, more decent New Yorkers like Pablo Villavicencio will fall victim to Trump’s deportation machine.