As the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, better known as Green Light NY, turns 3 months old, the cheers that followed its enactment are balanced by rumblings from county clerks in different parts of the state.
Countless hours of lobbying and organizing went into passing the bill, which gives undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses. And despite that and support from elected officials, Green Light NY passed in the Senate by only four votes.
The law has already been targeted by two federal lawsuits filed by county clerks in upstate New York, with other county clerks vowing not to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants come December, when the law goes into effect.
Republican state senators have proposed legislation to protect Department of Motor Vehicles employees from termination if they decide not to follow the law. Proponents for Green Light NY have raised concerns about the implementation of the law to state Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Mark Schroeder, who has remained silent on the issue.
Yet the law is expected to provide financial benefits. An estimated 265,000 undocumented immigrants, including 64,000 in the Hudson Valley and Northern and Western New York, are expected to seek driver’s licenses in the first three years of Green Light, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute. The law is expected to generate $83 million in revenue the first year, and $57 million each year after that.
We should remember that a policy to allow undocumented New Yorkers to earn driver’s licenses is nothing new. The state did it for years until former Gov. George Pataki in 2001 signed an executive order to revoke the policy.
Some opponents say their objections to the law are not about driving, but about voting. They fear that nothing will be able to stop undocumented immigrants from registering to vote.
Green Light supporters dismiss this argument as fear-mongering, noting that non-citizens have been obtaining driver’s licenses for years without registering to vote. Under the law, the licenses issued to undocumented immigrants differ in design from common driver’s licenses so they cannot be used to register to vote. If an applicant falsely claims U.S. citizenship to register to vote, it’s punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and up to four years in prison.
Green Light laws in other states seem to be working. Since 2003, according to a report by the New York Times News Service, legislation in New Mexico allowed undocumented immigrants to provide tax identification numbers to supplement Social Security numbers to acquire a driver’s license. A decade later, in 2013, New Mexico experienced a decrease in traffic fatalities and uninsured drivers, indicating that undocumented drivers complied with the state’s law and regulations and have contributed to public safety.
Passage of Green Light NY demonstrates what state lawmakers can achieve when they are answerable only to their own conscience and judgment. And it demonstrates that the words of freedom inscribed on the Statue of Liberty are not merely hollow promises.