Assembly set to pass bill allowing driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants

The Assembly is expected to approve a bill on Tuesday that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, a politically charged proposal that faces uncertain prospects in the Senate in the closing weeks of the 2019 legislative session.

Democratic lawmakers and advocates argue the Green Light bill would improve road safety by getting undocumented immigrants who already drive to get licenses, which means taking road tests, getting insurance and annual vehicle inspections. Those who don’t drive without licenses could now do so legally, enabling them to get to work and grocery stores and take their children to school, supporters say, framing the argument partly in economic and humanitarian terms.

“From farm laborers to construction jobs, the tight labor market and lowering unemployment rates have created a shortage of workers for many of New York’s industries,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a joint statement on Wednesday with Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, a fellow Bronx Democrat. “For farmers in rural New York, the ability of their laborers to get to and from work is critical to their livelihood. Simply put, our economy depends on people being able to get to work.”

Republicans have vilified the proposal as an undeserved accommodation that poses security risks and rewards people who have broken the law by entering the country illegally. GOP lawmakers from the mid-Hudson region fired off statements in opposition to the Green Light bill after a Republican press conference in Albany denouncing the measure on Wednesday.

“This radical legislation undermines the laws of our land, threatens our national security, puts overall public safety at risk and benefits people here circumventing the rule of law,” Assemblyman Colin Schmitt, R-New Windsor, said in his statement. “Our focus should be on legislation that benefits law-abiding citizens, working to ease the path to legal citizenship and holding those accountable who break the law.”

Assemblyman Karl Brabenec, a Deerpark Republican, called the proposal “as dangerous as it is insulting,” and accused Assembly Democrats of “rewarding criminals, prison inmates and illegal aliens” while ignoring “the law-abiding middle class.”

Yet one of the Republicans’ traditional allies, the state Business Council, has backed Democrats on the issue. “We are supporting this bill because it sends a signal to Washington that comprehensive immigration reform is a necessary business issue, and because it’s the right and decent thing to do,” Heather Briccetti, the council’s president and CEO, said in a recent statement. “It is an opportunity to support billions in annual economic activity, and state and local tax collections, driven by hardworking undocumented families around the state.”

A number of county clerks, who run Department of Motor Vehicles offices on behalf of the state in most of upstate, including in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties, oppose the bill or say they have strong misgivings.

Sullivan County Clerk Dan Briggs, a Republican, told the Times Herald-Record this week that he’s concerned about his office having to decipher foreign birth certificates and somehow determine if they are legitimate. “We’re not staffed nor equipped to do that,” he said. In addition to that practical objection, Briggs said, issuing licenses based on unfamiliar documents presents a security risk if his office couldn’t verify the applicants’ identity.

Democrats won control of the Senate in November and now hold a huge edge over Republicans in the chamber. But published reports on Thursday indicated the state’s Democratic chairman, Jay Jacobs, is discouraging a Senate vote on the bill because he thinks it could cost members their seats and his party its majority. Only seven voting days remain until the legislative session ends on June 19.

Two of five Democrats representing Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties in Albany – Assemblymen Kevin Cahill of Kingston and Jonathan Jacobson of the City of Newburgh – are co-sponsoring the bill. Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther of Forestburgh and Sens. Jen Metzger of Rosendale and James Skoufis of Woodbury are not.

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