Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Drivers’ Licenses for Immigrants

With a new administration in Albany, many immigrant New Yorkers are hoping that a policy that has denied drivers' licenses to hundreds of thousands of state residents who lack immigration status will be reversed. Their hopes are not unfounded. On the campaign trail last year, Governor Eliot Spitzer publicly and repeatedly expressed support for making drivers' licenses available to all New Yorkers, including those who do not have immigration status. Many are now wondering what kind of driver's license proposal they can expect to see from the new governor.

How Did We Get Here?

The driver's license issue first became big news in early 2004, when the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV, began sending out thousands of letters threatening to suspend the licenses of individuals whose Social Security number on file with DMV did not match the federal government's records.

DMV officials defended their actions as an effort to deter fraud and combat terrorism, stating that they were merely seeking to 'verify that the applicant is, in fact, who s/he purports to be.' For the 300,000 immigrants throughout New York State who received a DMV letter and faced suspension of their drivers' licenses, however, the effort represented an attack on their ability to make a living and survive in New York.

The DMV policy was challenged in state court, where a preliminary injunction was granted to halt the suspensions. In June 2006, however, a state appellate court in Cubas v. Martinez reversed the lower court's decision and upheld the DMV's policy of requiring proof of immigration status.

Meanwhile, attempts to pass legislation to reform the state's driver's license policy fell short. Last year, a bill that would have granted driver's license access to all qualified state residents passed the Assembly Transportation Committee but stalled in committee in the Senate.

A New Hope

Governor Eliot Spitzer has gone on record to support drivers' licenses for all New York State residents, regardless of their immigration status. 'The facts show that restricting immigrants' access to drivers' licenses does nothing to improve security. All it does is drive immigrants into the shadows, creating a class of people with no public records,' a Spitzer spokesperson told the Associated Press last October. She also noted that road safety would improve if all immigrants obtained licenses and insurance, and that the DMV is not trained to act as an immigration agency.

Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers stand to benefit from such a change in the state's driver's license policy. An estimated 650,000 New York State residents are undocumented immigrants, with more than 500,000 of them residing in New York City, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Shadow of Federal Law

Creating a state policy to extend driver's license access to residents who lack immigration status is made more complicated by the federal Real ID Act of 2005. That law, described by its sponsors as an effort to disrupt terrorist travel, establishes extensive requirements for state-issued drivers' licenses and identification cards to be accepted as federal identification. The Real ID Act calls on state motor vehicle departments to check the immigration status of every applicant and to verify the authenticity of all documents submitted by applicants with the issuing agency. It also envisions digitizing and storing state driver's license records and linking them electronically to other states' databases as well as to federal government databases.

Although state compliance with Real ID is voluntary, licenses issued by states that do not comply with Real ID by May 2008 will not be accepted for any official federal purpose, such as boarding commercial airplanes or entering federal buildings. Nonetheless, immigrant advocates in New York are urging the governor and State Legislature not to adopt Real ID in New York.

Real ID also has been criticized by advocates concerned with privacy and identity theft and by state officials from around the country. In September 2006, the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators issued a report finding that Real ID would cost states more than $11 billion to implement and 'reduce efficiencies and increase wait times for citizens.'

Some states have created a two-tiered licensing system that offers driving certificates or some sort of alternative license to immigrants who lack immigration status. Immigrant advocates in New York, however, are urging the governor to reject a two-tiered scheme because, they point out, a two-tiered system has a 'scarlet letter' effect, allowing license holders to be singled out as being undocumented.

It remains to be seen whether the new governor will take up this highly charged issue during his first 100 days in office.

Norman Eng is communications coordinator, and Milan Bhatt is employment policy associate, with The New York Immigration Coalition.

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