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County clerks uncertain over new license law for undocumented immigrants

Jul 2, 2019

Immigrants demonstrate in favor of the driver's license bill at the State Capitol in March.

New York's county clerks are meeting in Syracuse on Monday to discuss a new law that requires county departments of motor vehicles to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, some county clerks who are opposed to the law are pressing forward on a federal lawsuit.

Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola has been an outspoken opponent of granting standard driver's licenses to the immigrants. And he said he won't comply with the law, which was approved in late June by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic-led state Legislature.

"I'm adamant that I won't do it in my office, they are going to have to find another venue," Merola said. "If somebody walks into my office, knowing that they are here illegally, we will not process a driver's license for them." 

Opposition to the new law was a recurring theme at Monday's meeting of state Republican Party leaders, which Merola was attending. 

Merola said, for him, the issue is personal. 

"I'm not anti-immigrant," Merola said. "I say this all the time, my wife is a naturalized citizen, but my son is also a police officer."

And he said he believes the licenses will hinder police from arresting undocumented immigrants who might commit crimes.  

Merola, a Republican, may not have to face the choice of whether to comply with the law any time soon. He and other clerks are supporting a federal lawsuit that he said could be filed in the next several days.

Merola said New York's local motor vehicle offices are uniquely structured. In other states, DMV personnel work for the state; in New York, many DMV employees are paid by the individual county.

"Fifty-two county clerks have over 100 DMV offices," Merola said. "And we take an oath of office to support the constitution."

He said he believes that oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution supersedes state law.

Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns said he believes the law is a "violation" of federal law. He told Buffalo public radio station WBFO that he's written a letter to the Erie County attorney asking for help to get a federal judge to issue an opinion.

Kearns said in 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, stating that it is against the law to hire someone who is in the country without proper documentation. 

"When they talked about people needing transportation to and from work that are illegal, that's illegal to hire those people," Kearns said.  

The New York State Association of County Clerks in mid-June issued a letter expressing concerns about the measure. The group said local DMV staff are not trained to recognize whether a foreign passport is a fake, and that counties do not have the money to hire extra staff for translations.  

At Monday's meeting in Syracuse, county clerks will continue to discuss their questions about the law and what obstacles they might face in implementing it.  

Proponents of the law say in other states, where the licenses have been issued for some time, traffic safety has improved, and there are fewer incidents of hit-and-run accidents.

Senate sponsor Luis Sepulveda, during debate on the bill on the Senate floor, said not having a license means some immigrants are driving without one, but many others don't drive and have great difficulty getting to work, or taking their children to school or a hospital. 

"You look at these undocumented families, they cannot take their children to schools," Sepulveda said on June 17. "Some of them have children that are so sick … that it brought me to tears. Because they cannot take a sick child to a hospital for medical attention."  

Cuomo tried to put the brakes on the driver's license measure just hours before its scheduled passage in the Legislature. He said it might inadvertently make it easier for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to gain access to DMV databases. But state Attorney General Tish James said the legislation protects against that happening. 

Cuomo, speaking a few days after the measure was approved, said he does not expect any licenses to be issued until the lawsuit winds its way through the courts. And he predicted that until then, undocumented immigrants wouldn't try to apply for the licenses.  

"Not that many people would be signing up until they know they are not going to be subject to a federal government subpoena, which would then aid in deportation," Cuomo said on June 21.

Cuomo has the power to remove county clerks from office if they refuse to carry out a state law. The governor refused to say if he'll do that, saying it's premature to talk about that scenario until the federal lawsuit is settled.

Merola also said he'll cope with potential confrontation down the road.

Kearns said President Donald Trump and Congress ultimately need to fix the nation's broken immigration laws.