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Senate Votes on bill to give drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants

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

The New York State Senate  is voting on a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to receive standard driver’s licenses, and expects it to be approved .  But Governor Andrew Cuomo has raised some last minute objections, saying he fears that that some data that the state department of motor vehicles collects on the immigrants might be accessed by the federal government and immigration officials.

During debate on the Senate floor, sponsor Luis Sepulveda said until President Donald Trump and Congress fix the nation’s immigration problem, measures like granting undocumented immigrants drivers licenses are necessary.

“You look at these undocumented families, they cannot take their children to schools,” Sepulveda said. “Some of them have children so sick that it brought me to tears. Because they cannot take a sick child to the hospital for medical attention.”

The New York Immigration Coalition’s Murad Awawdeh, who has been lobbying for the measure, says it will be a “game changer” for immigrants , especially for those working in areas where there is no public transit.

“Where people have to drive because there’s no other way of getting around,” Awawdeh said. “Having more people who are tested to drive, register their vehicles and have insurance on their vehicles, is a win-win for everyone in the state of New York.”

Awawdeh says the measure will boost revenue through the licensing fees, lower insurance premiums, and make the streets safer. Studies show that in states where the licenses are already legal, there are fewer incidents of hit and run accidents.

The state Assembly passed the measure it last week.  Governor Cuomo who has said in the past that he supports the idea, dampened expectations on whether he’d sign the bill in an interview on Albany public radio station WAMC .

Cuomo says in recent days, a new worry has developed. He says he has concerns that  the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, might be able to find a back way into the state DMV data base and use that information to deport people.

“We have to write a law that does not have an unintended consequence, that's what the smart people are worried about,” Cuomo said. “ In other words, you could be creating a database for the feds to use to actually track down undocumented people.”

Cuomo points to a news report from California, where it is legal for undocumented immigrants to obtain the driver’s licenses. It says ICE used backdoor methods to obtain personal information about some immigrants, then used that data to track them down and deport them.   

Cuomo says he’ll ask the state’s solicitor general,  Barbara Underwood to look over  the measure and make sure it’s protections are adequate, before he decides whether or not to sign it.

Awawdeh, with the Immigration Coalition, is skeptical about the governor’s objections. He says the governor has been on record as supporting the driver’s licenses for a dozen years. When Cuomo was Attorney General in 2007, he wrote a memo in support of  a similar measure introduced by then- Governor Eliot Spitzer. And Awawdeh says the current bill has been discussed for three years, and includes a number of protections aimed at addressing holes in California’s system to better protect New York immigrants’ personal data from ICE.

“I miss the 2007 Attorney General Cuomo,” he said. “Not sure what happens between 2007 Cuomo and 2019 Cuomo, but I’m hoping he’ s not putting politics over the people of New York.”

Republicans, who are in the minority in both houses, are against the measure.  GOP Senator Jim Tedisco represents Schenectady and portions of its suburbs. Polls show the bill is unpopular in upstate areas.

Tedisco says granting the undocumented immigrants the licenses condones some of the unlawful actions that the immigrants took to get into the country.

“If I can come here as someone through the process illegally, and get all the benefits and privileges of what a citizen can get, why would I wait in line?” Tedisco said. “You are incentivizing them from not following through with the greatest gift any individual can get, becoming a citizen of the United States of America.”

Tedisco says ultimately, it’s about gaining voting rights for undocumented immigrants, - something advocates and bill sponsors have consistently said is not true.

The state’s association of county clerks is against the measure. And some county clerks in upstate New York  have threatened to not obey the law, if Governor Cuomo ultimately signs it. They have said they will refuse to issue the licenses or even notify ICE if an undocumented immigrant tries to apply for one. Under state law, the governor has the power to remove a county clerk from office if they refuse to carry out New York’s statutes.  

Senator Tedisco introduced an amendment to protect the county clerks in the event of such a scenario, but it was voted down along party lines.