Fresh off passage of a state budget that included the DREAM Act to fund higher education for undocumented immigrants, some Democrats in the Legislature are looking for a bigger win: New York state-issued driver’s licenses.
If bills from Bronx Democrats Assemblyman Marcos Crespo and Sen. Luis Sepulveda pass, New York would join a dozen states that already issue licenses to the undocumented — as New York did until 2001. Now, an estimated 700,000 New York State residents of driving age can’t apply for a license due to their immigration status.
“Every single state that has it has seen an enormous economic benefit. Has seen an enormous drop in fatalities and accidents. Has seen a greater interactions between the police and undocumented immigrants,” Sepulveda told THE CITY. “If we can get beyond the anti-immigrant fervor, if we can get beyond the racism and you look at it from this perspective there should be no opposition to this.”
A report from the city Comptroller’s Office offers data to back up Sepulveda’s contentions.
Yet passage is far from certain. A Siena College Poll of registered voters in mid-March found 61% of respondents against issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, with a majority opposed everywhere but in New York City. A Quinnipiac University Poll that month showed similar results.
Supporters of the proposal have pointed to the polling as a reason why Gov. Andrew Cuomo hasn’t pursued it more vigorously, saying privately that he usually doesn’t push for a measure unless it has support from at least 60% of the public in polls.
Cuomo has rarely spoken about the measure since his top counsel said in November that the governor would sign a bill if it’s approved by the Legislature.
“It may come up later in the legislative session,” Cuomo said at a news conference in late March. “It’s something we have talked about for years. It was always a non-starter. But yes, I’m going to pursue it.”
A Daily Gamble
Immigrants forced to navigate life without a driver’s license describe daily logistical headaches and fear of being caught by authorities.
When Doris, from El Salvador, gets a call from her son’s school that he’s sick, she wonders how she’s going to pick him up. “What can I do? Who can I call?” Doris, who asked that her last name be withheld, said in Spanish. “Everyone is working.”
“When my son has an emergency, it can easily turn into something severe,” added the 31-year-old Westchester resident, who’s lived in the U.S. for eight years and doesn’t have a driver’s license.
What would be a 15-minute car ride to pick up her 6-year-old son, who is a U.S. citizen and has spina bifida, can easily take an hour on the bus. When public transportation isn’t reliable and Doris doesn’t have enough for cab fare, she’ll walk to her son’s specialized school.
Getting her son in his wheelchair to and from medical appointments is more difficult. Medicaid provides transportation, but she needs to give notice three days before a doctor’s visit, she said.
“I’m afraid that I’ll be stopped by police,” Doris said. “I run the risk of being deported and my son needs me. Not having a license means being isolated because I can’t go anywhere.”
Doris’ husband is the sole driver in the family — and has a pending immigration case that requires check-ins every six months. While he runs the risk of being deported at each check-in, through that process he’s gotten a permit to legally work in the United States — and with that, a driver’s license.
David, a 50-year-old Staten Island resident who immigrated from Mexico in 1991, had a driver’s license until it expired after the 2001 ban. Living in a borough where residents typically drive to get around has been “difficult,” he said.
“If I’m working and I get a call from my daughter’s school what do I do? I have to call a taxi to take me to the school and to take her to the doctor,” said David, who asked that his last name be withheld.
Years of Roadblocks
In Albany, undocumented immigrants with transportation struggles have long taken a back seat to opposition to granting them licenses.
In 2001, then-Gov. George Pataki signed an executive order requiring proof of immigration status with driver’s license applications, effectively barring the undocumented. Six years later, Eliot Spitzer announced his administration would make licenses available to immigrants. The bipartisan blowback sparked a national debate.
Opponents included then-upstate Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand — now in the U.S. Senate and running for the Democratic presidential nomination — and Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, who was among a dozen county clerks who vowed not to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants. She is now New York’s lieutenant governor.
Spitzer abandoned his plan amid overwhelming opposition. Meanwhile, Hochul — citing a “different political climate” — and Gillibrand have both since reversed their positions.
In late March, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) tweeted he was looking to advance immigrant driver’s licenses after the state budget negotiations, which ended April 1.
But even with its new Democratic majority and the backing of Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the State Senate doesn’t yet appear to have the 32 votes needed for passage, according to legislative sources.
A spokesman for Senate Republicans said, “We oppose granting driver’s licenses to people who are in this country illegally.”
Advocates are focused on swaying the six Democratic state senators from Long Island, four of whom ousted Republicans in 2018 to win their seats.
“They’re not concerned about the policy, they’re concerned about the atmosphere that (President Donald) Trump has created on Long Island,” said Javier Valdés, co-executive director of the immigration advocacy group Make the Road New York.
“None of them have expressed concern that the policy would do any harm. It’s just ‘How will the conservatives and Republicans use this against us?’ We’re trying to demonstrate to them that there’s ample support on Long Island.”
Trump has used Long Island as a rallying ground for cracking down on immigration, often pointing to MS-13 gang killings in the area.
Five of the six Long Island Senate Democrats declined to comment to THE CITY or did not respond to requests. One said he’s considering backing a bill.
“I am supportive of increasing access to a driver’s license, which experts have shown will reduce the costs of accidents and lower insurance rates,” Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) said in a statement. “But I am still examining the public safety implications, including ensuring that people with dangerous driving histories are not issued a license.”
If an immigrant license bill doesn’t succeed this session, sponsors and supporters say it will be even harder to pass in 2020 — an election year when no one wants to take potentially controversial positions.