Next to abortion, no subject kicks up more dust than immigration. First it was the debate over “dreamers” — young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, usually with their parents. They should be allowed to remain in the country without the threat of deportation, by determination of a near-national consensus.
Allowing undocumented immigrants to have driver’s licenses generated more rancor, even though a simple law was enacted to separate the privilege of driving from the right to vote just by showing a license and declaring citizenship. Undocumented immigrants who stay out of trouble, as the clear majority do, should be eligible for driver’s licenses, not to mention work permits. In that case, they should be expected to pay taxes.
Now the law, which goes into effect in December, is being challenged as a growing coalition of county clerks say they will refuse to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants, and they are threatening to take their fight to court.
“You are asking me to give a government document to somebody who is in our country breaking federal law. That is 100% wrong,” Niagara County Clerk Joseph Jastrzemski said in a New York Times News Service report. “It compromises my oath of office to defend the Constitution.”
Closer to home, Columbia County Clerk Holly C. Tanner said that while she opposes the law, she will carry it out if it goes into effect.
“I was opposed to the bill for a number of reasons, especially regarding implementation,” Tanner said. “But we are a land of laws and if it is found to be upheld through the various legal challenges, my obligation is to follow the law.”
Among the implementation issues Tanner sees is how clerks will process foreign documents, possibly in languages they can’t read.
There are also issues with the “Not for Federal Use” designation that would be stamped on licenses issued to undocumented immigrants, Tanner said. That same designation is included on standard driver’s licenses — unlike the new Real ID or Enhanced licenses that will enable the holder to use the license to board domestic flights beginning in October 2020 — and that is a confusing issue for many clerks, Tanner said, adding there are other questions that remain unanswered.
We can understand that county clerks have questions that must be answered. But what do we make of the implementation issues? Clerks should not be stymied by such issues for long. Documents written in foreign languages can be scanned in and translated. Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden said county clerks from around the state will meet Monday to discuss the law. He added that the issues go deeper than enabling undocumented immigrants to drive. “From what I understand, it is not so much the driver’s license; it’s the ability to register to vote that concerns some people,” Groden said. “The way we understand it, when you fill out paperwork to register for a driver’s license, it includes a prompt that asks if you are a citizen and if you say yes, it automatically registers you to vote. The fear is that [the person’s] name will show up on a voter registration list, enabling them to vote.” This seems easily solved, as well. Just redact the citizenship question or remove it from the form.
We can only speculate why Tanner signed a letter addressed to President Trump asking him for guidance on the driver’s license issue, but we can guess what his advice will be.
We can’t accept this as just another form of strategy by the county clerks. We have to ask if they hold meetings and write to the White House every time a law changes or is added to the books. We have to ask if they nitpicked about the Enhanced Licenses or raising the drinking age to 21. Did they go to the president for them?
We can accept there will be legal challenges to the driver’s license law. But we think county clerks across the state should do their jobs, stop worrying and wait for the law to have its day in court.