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Know Your Rights
Source: New York Times
Subject: Featured
Type: Media Coverage

Let Undocumented Immigrants Drive

A Proposal In New York Could Extend The Right To Thousands And Make The Roads Safer.

As long as Washington remains unable to deliver comprehensive immigration reform, states will be left to decide how to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants who are a part of their communities and the work force.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and the now Democratic-led State Legislature recently agreed to let undocumented immigrants apply for state financial aid to attend college, tapping a pool of talent and giving more young people a chance to fully participate in American life.

There are an estimated 725,000 undocumented immigrants in New York State, making up more than 5 percent of the labor force in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. They pay $1.1 billion in state and local taxes each year, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates.

Almost 250,000 of them live in the suburbs and upstate, where people rely on cars to get to work and school. That’s why the governor and legislative leaders have proposed legislation to let undocumented immigrants receive driver’s licenses, as a dozen states and the District of Columbia do.

Under legislation pending in Albany, applicants would no longer be required to show proof they are in the country legally. They could use foreign passports to establish their identity and obtain a standard driver’s license, once, of course, they pass the same tests as everyone else.

Though researchers say it is hard to isolate a single factor when studying road safety, law enforcement officials have said that knowing who is on the road is a clear benefit. William Bratton — who served as police commissioner in both Los Angeles and New York — has supported such measures, saying they would reduce the number of hit-and-runs, increase the number of insured motorists and, by having identification on record, help fight crime and terrorism.

One 2017 study found hit-and-run accidents in California decreased by an average of 7 percent to 10 percent after undocumented immigrants were allowed to get driver’s licenses. After New Mexico approved similar legislation, the percentage of uninsured drivers fell to 9.1 percent in 2011 from 33 percent in 2002.

Issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants would also bring the state more revenue. The Fiscal Policy Institute estimates New York could see about $26 million in fees for license applications and car registration, and the gasoline tax.

Opponents say the state should not make it easier for immigrants who are here illegally to work jobs they are not supposed to have. But the bill would reflect reality: Undocumented immigrants are already driving on the state’s roads.

New York once allowed undocumented residents to drive. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, Gov. George Pataki, citing the threat of terrorist infiltration, issued an executive order requiring applicants to prove their legal status before obtaining licenses. In 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer tried to restore these rights but backed off in the face of intense political blowback.

Along with Mr. Cuomo, the Assembly speaker, Carl Heastie, and the Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, have signaled support. But Ms. Stewart-Cousins may have a tough time persuading Democrats from Long Island, where anti-immigrant sentiment can be strong.

For those who have to work and raise their families in the shadows as they provide cheap labor for contractors, restaurants, farms and factories, a driver’s license could change their lives.

Aldo, a 40-year-old Mexican working illegally in construction and the food industry, lives with his wife and young son on Staten Island’s South Shore, far from public transportation. It’s an area the couple chose because the schools are good and it’s affordable.

But he said driving in the area increases his chances of interacting with law enforcement. He stands out in a neighborhood where most residents are white, and there are few other immigrants.

“They know you don’t have a license,” he said of the police, “and you’re fearful.”

Keeping people like Aldo fearful doesn’t make anyone else safer. Giving them the right to have a driver’s license makes sense.

The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section.

* Aldo is a Make the Road New York member.