With a few county clerks throughout New York already threatening to defy a new state law that goes into effect later this year, Putnam County Clerk Michael Bartolotti remained non- committal whether his office would issue driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.
The state Legislature approved the Green Light Bill last week, which would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. After the controversial measure passed through both the state senate and assembly, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law as New York became the 13th state, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, to allow undocumented immigrants to have some form of a license.
Bartolotti, in a statement, said his office would continue to express concerns and questions to the state Commissioner of Motor Vehicles in hopes of affecting the implementation process while also consulting with the county attorney’s office to explore further options.
Bartolotti, a Republican, said he and other clerks in the state have conveyed concerns about the Green Light Bill to state lawmakers and the governor’s office, only for it to be ignored. He said this legislation puts clerks in the middle of a conflict between state and federal laws.
“We are very well versed in the driver’s license issuing process, and are aware of the many pitfalls of this legislation.” Bartolotti said. “The concept of allowing driving privileges to those who cannot prove lawful presence in the United States is very troubling to me.”
Supporters of the law, like NYS Sen. Peter Harckham, said it is a public safety measure that will help undocumented immigrants know the rules of the road and have car insurance. Those granted licenses will only get it after passing written safety and road tests and paying a fee to the state. The license would not be used to vote, board an airplane or gain citizenship, Harckham, a Democrat, said.
“The bill was supported by many law enforcement professionals who were concerned about untrained, unlicensed drivers on the road,” Harckham said.
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, a Democrat, also voted in favor of the measure, though she originally had reservations about supporting the proposal. Ultimately for her, it came down to safety on the roads.
She said undocumented immigrants are already driving without licenses and might not know all the rules of the road.
In a recent questionnaire sent to her constituents, she said 58 percent of people that replied were in support of the Green Light bill.
“I think the views on this have changed over time,” Galef said. “I think we’re going to have safer roadways.”
Norma Pereira, a Carmel resident who is active in the Latino community, said it was long past due for the state to approve licenses for undocumented immigrants. By passing this law, Pereira said it would allow those immigrants to come out of the shadows.
“It’s going to help everyone in the community,” Pereira said.
Assemblyman Kevin Byrne and NYS Sen. Sue Serino, both Republicans, voted against the Green Light Bill.
Byrne said he doesn’t believe in rewarding people that violate national and state laws. He had other problems with the bill, including police being handcuffed when doing their jobs and working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Byrne said the Police Conference of New York publicly opposed the bill and he’s spoke with others in law enforcement that were against it.
He said there were concerns that loopholes could allow people in the country illegally to use these licenses to vote.
When asked what he thought about county clerks objecting to issuing these licenses, Byrne said that was each clerk’s prerogative.
“I could see their objection to it,” Byrne said, noting there was a bill that would’ve allowed county clerks to opt out of issuing these licenses, but it was never taken up for a vote.
Serino, in a statement, said county clerks have indicated to her they do not have the resources to verify identifies using foreign documents as they would be required to under the legislation. She said the law is “ripe for abuse” that could “inadvertently leave New Yorkers vulnerable to serious security and public safety threats.”
“This bill is extreme in every way, goes beyond anything any other state is doing on this issue, and puts the rights of lawbreakers ahead of law-abiding citizens,” Serino said. “If there is a problem with our immigration policy, we should be advocating for comprehensive change at the federal level, not further incentivizing illegal activity here in our state at the expense of our own legal residents.”