‘Green Light’ Proponents Say Law Is Working As Hoped, And Long Lines At The DMV Are Proof

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and East Hampton Town Police Officer Luis Morales spoke of the benefits the new license law has brought to the Latino community on the East End. photo michael wright

Proponents of New York State’s new Green Light Law say the new rules, which removed a 2007 requirement of legal immigration documents to receive a driver’s license, have been working well, and they are celebrating the extent to which it has been embraced.

Long lines at some State Department of Motor Vehicles offices, including in Riverhead have been the only downside to the new allowance — the law’s authors said the department could have been better prepared ahead of its roll-out — but, they say, also are the proof of its success.

“There were concerns that people wouldn’t trust it, that they wouldn’t trust the government, but that has not been the case,” State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., one of the co-sponsors of the legislation that lifted the legal immigration requirement 13 years after it was imposed, said at a discussion of the new laws on Thursday night, January 30, in East Hampton. “The people who this was designed to help are coming out and taking advantage of it.”

Representatives of OLA of Eastern Long Island said that their offices were almost immediately inundated with members of the immigrant community seeking guidance about how to apply for driver’s licenses.

Mr. Thiele lamented the long delays at the DMV in the first weeks of the new rules, which he chalked up to the state agency not increasing staffing enough to deal with the influx of new applicants, combined with the surge of current license holders applying to replace standard driver’s licenses with Real ID or Enhanced licenses to meet coming domestic air travel requirements. But the agency has adjusted and seems to have addressed the long wait times in recent weeks, he said.

The bill’s stated intention — to allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses, and, therefore, also have to pass driving proficiency tests and be able to purchase auto insurance — is a long-overdue return to common sense license requirements, Latino community advocates and local law enforcement officials have said.

New York State did not require immigration documents to receive a driver’s license until 2007, and the authors of the new law say that returning to that status has been a sensible fix of a pointless policy change. On the East End in particular, the new law is being seen as a fix to a system that was leaving many immigrants driving illegally and without insurance.

“The East End, prior to the passing of this law, really presented a perfect storm,” said Andrew Strong, in-house counsel for OLA of Eastern Long Island. “We had a significant population out here who didn’t have access to driver’s licenses, you have an economy that is dependent on this group of people, our geography is very spread out, and public transportation is sparse, to say the least. It’s almost impossible to get around without a car.”

It is hoped that being able to get a legal driver’s license regardless of immigration status will also bring the immigrant community closer to police and other authorities, because there is no longer a constant, nagging fear that any interaction with a police officer could result in arrest.

“One of the things it does is immediately align people with law enforcement, instead of being afraid of police because they have to drive,” Mr. Strong said.

Sandra Dunn, associate director of OLA, also sought to allay any lingering fears that the licenses given to those without immigration documents somehow indicate their status.

“There is nothing about this license that brands someone as undocumented,” she said.
East Hampton Town Police Officer Luis Morales, himself a naturalized citizen, said that the department has used the new license law as a chance to reach out to the Latino community to assure them that local police are not out to enforce federal immigration laws and can be trusted to stand up for local residents regardless of their status.

“We’re there for you — you can call us anytime,” Officer Morales said at last week’s forum, which was televised by LTV with a Spanish-language interpretation. “We are not associated with ICE. That is not our concern. Our concern is with the safety of the people of our community.”