Legislation is pending in Albany that would restore the ability for everyone, including undocumented immigrants, to obtain a standard driver’s license after passing comprehensive driver’s exams to ensure safety on our roadways.
There are few — on either side of the immigration debate — that believe the federal government does not need to address immigration in a comprehensive way, but with true reform nowhere in sight, it is incumbent on government leaders to address issues like the driver’s license for undocumented immigrants who are living in our communities, who are a part of our work force and, in many cases on the East End, a part of our extended families.
The legislation, known as the Green Light Bill, is before the New York State Assembly, a majority of who — including our own Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. — are supportive of the bill. It would no longer require applicants to show proof they are in the United States legally, though a foreign passport would still be required to establish identity. Applicants would also be required to go through the same driving exam as everyone else, ensuring only those with the ability to operate a vehicle safely earn a license to drive.
To be clear, a driver’s license does not grant additional rights — holders still can’t vote without citizenship or receive public benefits and simply having a license does not grant legal immigration status.
As Assemblyman Thiele noted during a forum last week at LTV Studios in Wainscott, this isn’t actually anything new in New York State — it was only after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that then Governor George Pataki issued an executive order to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to demand residency information.
Many states already allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois and Vermont, as well as a half dozen others, with other states like Massachusetts also debating the issue.
It is estimated that 70 percent of the roughly 752,000 undocumented immigrants over the age of 16 who live in New York State reside in New York City, where access to public transportation is abundant. Without the ability to obtain a driver’s license, the remaining population in rural and suburban areas like the East End are left vulnerable.
Longtime East Hampton pediatrician Dr. Gail Schonfeld discussed last week the challenges some families face in getting to important doctor’s appointments for their children — taking hours on the bus when the office is often just a short drive away. Sandra González, a 20-year resident of East Hampton, said that getting to work, the doctor’s office or even the grocery store is challenging at best. The fear of driving illegally has never been more potent with concerns over arrest and deportation looming as the national rhetoric surrounding immigration has grown more caustic than ever before.
Putting aside the basic need for these members of our community to have the right to live self-sufficiently, the reality is undocumented immigrants are driving on our roadways. The checks and balances of ensuring that those roadways are being safely navigated is only possible through comprehensive driving exams. This legislation is not only humane, but will benefit public safety — two undeniably good reasons for state officials to support it.