Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Driver's Licenses for the Undocumented

Jola Z. wishes she could drive her kids to Six Flags one day. But with an expired U.S. tourist visa, the Polish native is not eligible to apply for a driver's license. Working under the table as a nanny since her arrival in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in January 2006, Jola (who would not give her full name) wants a car not for herself, but for her family.

"In Poland, people usually have one car per family," she said. "My husband used to love to drive, and my son would love to have it, too."

Now New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has granted her wish. He has announced that people applying for a driver's license will no longer have to show proof of legal immigration status. The policy will also introduce new anti-fraud measures, including a program to verify foreign passports and photo comparison technology that will prevent duplication of IDs.

Spitzer called the move a "common sense" change, saying the measure deals with the reality that hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants live in the state. "Allowing them the opportunity to obtain driver's license in a responsive and secure manner will help increase public safety," he said.

His decision, though, has set off vociferous opposition particularly from Republican politicians, but also from some Democrats, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a number of the officials who would have to put the policy into effect.

Behind the Change

In announcing the new policy, Spitzer abolished a 2002 executive order from Republican Governor George Pataki that required license applicants to submit a Social Security number or proof that they are ineligible for one.

Spitzer has painted the move largely as a public safety effort. The change, he has said, will "increase the security of our license system by obtaining better and more verifiable information from applicants, which decrease the number of uninsured drivers on the roads, lower auto insurance rates for all drivers, and, when necessary help law enforcement agencies in their investigations."

Unlicensed drivers are almost five times more likely to be in a fatal crash than licensed drivers, according to the a report titled "Unlicensed to Kill" by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a Washington D.C.-based research and educational organization,.

The New York Department of Insurance estimates that expanded access to driver's licenses will reduce the premium costs associated with uninsured motorist coverage by 34 percent, which will save New York drivers a total of $120 million a year.

"The policy change allows the Department of Motor Vehicles to focus its resources on its core mission -- to ensure that every person driving on our roads is fit to drive and can prove his or her identity," said the department's commissioner, David Stewart. "Rather than bury our heads in the sand and pretend the problem does not exist, today we are choosing to confront it and in doing so greatly improve the safety of our roads."

The Next Step

In doing this, New York will become the ninth state that does not require driver's license applicants to prove legal immigration status, joining Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

The policy change in New York does not require legislative approval. Implementation will take place in two phases. In Phase 1, former and current license holders will be able to renew their license regardless of their immigration status by the end of the year. Phase 2 will begin six to eight months after Phase 1 and open the application process to all New York State residents.

While Spitzer has the authority to change the policy in New York, he faces a strong challenge from the federal government's REAL ID Act. Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2005, this establishes a national standard for issuing driver's licenses. That requires all applicants for state IDs and driver's license to provide documentation of legal immigration status in addition to proof of name, age and residence. If a state does not comply with those standards, its licenses will not serve as proper identification for entering a federal facility or boarding a federally regulated commercial plane. The standards must be met by May 10, 2013.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, usually a close ally of Spitzer's and a pro-immigration politician, voiced opposition to Spitzer's plan, saying, that if it went ahead, New York State's driver's license might not be acceptable proof of identification for air travel. "People would need other form of identification, generally a passport, and that would be a very big problem," said the mayor.

Spitzer later blasted Bloomberg, saying that the mayor is "wrong at every level-dead wrong, factually wrong, legally wrong, morally wrong, ethically wrong."

The Opposition

Meanwhile, Republican elected officials across the state voiced stronger criticisms than Bloomberg, calling Spitzer's move is politically motivated and charging that it could endanger national security.

"Governor Spitzer should not view New York state driver's license like baseball cards-handing them out just to score political points," State Senator Dale Volker of Erie County told the New York Post.

James Tedisco, the Republican State Assembly minority leader from Schenectady, said terrorists will welcome Spitzer's license plan. "I think Bin Laden is popping the cork off some champagne right now when he hears something like this," Tedisco said.

Peter Gadiel, the president of 9/11 Families for a Secure America, who lost his son in the World Trade Center attack, echoed Tedisco's concern. "If the governor follows through with his plan, when there is another 9/11, it is likely those involved will have obtained New York drivers licenses," Gadiel said in a statement published on the group's Web site. "In that case, Spitzer will have on his hands the blood of the victims."

But the real challenge to Spitzer's announcement came from some of the state's county clerks. A number of clerks, particularly upstate Republicans, have said they will not issue licenses to undocumented immigrants—regardless of what Spitzer might say. This could lead to a legal battle.

"I'm not going to process a driver's license for someone who cannot prove they are here legally, Frank Merola, County Clerk of Rensselaer County told the New York Sun. "I know I am not going to do it. The governor is going to really have to take a second look at this."

Cheryl Dinolfo, the county clerk of Monroe County and a Republican, said, "I believe that the state DMV is asking my office to help illegal immigrants to break the law, and this policy is one that cannot stand."

But the Spitzer administration stands firm on the policy change. In 51 of the state's 62 counties, county clerks operate Department of Motor Vehicles offices as state agents. In New York City, Long Island and Westchester, the state operates the facilities.

"The county clerk must respond and adapt to DMV policy and not doing so would be a flagrant violation of state law," Christine Anderson, press secretary to the governor, has said. She told the New York Times that the county clerks would be subject to lawsuits by the state and license applicants if the offices turn away eligible applicants.

Despite the possible rebellion from the Republican county clerks, state officials said any refusal on their part would be unlikely to have a big impact since most of the undocumented population lives in New York City, Long Island and Westchester, where Department of Motor Vehicles offices are directly operated by the state. Meanwhile, upstate residents would be free to travel to those counties to apply for licenses.

For the Policy

Not everyone opposes the new license policy. Immigrant groups have hailed the announcement, applauding Spitzer for making a brave move in a political climate that is pushing for tightening identification standards and cracking down on identity fraud.

"New York State's new driver's license policy is a win-win for immigrants and for all New Yorkers and a giant step forward for public safety," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella group for immigrant organizations. "Not only will the new policy enable more New Yorkers to get licensed and insured, making our roads much safer, but it will also make our licensing system far more secure and immune to fraud."

Nadia Marin-Molina, executive director of the Long Island-based Workplace Project, an immigrant advocacy group, said the policy was simply practical. "There are so many people here who are supporting families who need driver's licenses in order to continue to do that," Marin-Molina told Newsday. "People need to drive, especially on Long Island and upstate New York where there isn't good public transportation."

But to Jola, the Polish nanny from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, all these political debates and the national security concern over the driver's license seem irrelevant.

"The terrorists have their own ways of getting picture IDs," she said. "There are so many agencies that would make you a fake ID for $20, so I am sure they won't need the real one. They can get the fake ones if they want to."

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A resident of Brooklyn, he is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.



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