Local lawmakers and advocates for undocumented residents across the state are hopeful that a new law going into effect next week allowing people to obtain a driver’s license regardless of immigration status will improve the lives not only of the immigrants but other drivers as well.
“People are anxious for this to happen,” Organización Latino-Americana Long Island Executive Director Minerva Perez said, noting that many undocumented East End residents are looking forward to driving legally. “What the message is, is that they are anxious to do this the right way. Many people are under the radar — they have not been ticketed or gotten in any trouble for driving, but they don’t want to live that way.”
The Green Light NY law, which was approved in Albany earlier this year, will go into effect on Monday, December 16. It waives the requirement for an applicant for a driver’s license to have a Social Security number, and will also protect any relevant personal data from applicants’ from being released.
Prior to 2001, undocumented residents were allowed to apply for driver’s licenses, but immediately after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Governor George Pataki retracted the ability of undocumented people to obtain a driver’s license. He also issued an executive order that would require Social Security numbers or other forms of proof of legal residency to be provided upon application for a driver’s license.
The law going into effect on Monday reverses the former governor’s edicts. State Department of Motor Vehicle workers are currently being trained on how to handle new applicants looking to obtain their licenses.
“I’m trying to get my documents together to become a citizen,” a middle-aged man from the East Hampton area, who asked not to be identified, said in explaining what getting a driver’s license will mean to him. “That is my main reason for getting a license. But I obviously still need it to drive and for other reasons.”
He said that a driver’s license is a tool that he can use to better service the community. He added that this is just a tiny step within a huge process of getting his citizenship. And, simply, it will just make the roads safer for everyone.
“This is a big issue, because people don’t have an ID, so this is going to be a valid ID for them, and this is going to make a lot of processes simpler,” he said. “Moving forward, this will allow me to be identified in this country.”
Human rights attorney Andrew Strong, who works for OLA, said he has been receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from the community.
“People have been super positive and overwhelmingly excited to do this — it’s something that we weren’t sure about, because people have to register with the state, and you never know how people are going to react to that,” he said, noting that some people might be afraid to acknowledge that they are in the country illegally.
“Every single person that I’ve connected with has been, like, ‘When is it happening? What do I need to do? When can I start the process?’ And that is super encouraging, because it means people are going to get road tested, vision tested and insured. They’ll be able to survive out here.”
The ability to obtain a driver’s license can be life changing for some people. OLA is going to be working together with its volunteers to accompany people to the DMV, guide people through the process and help them obtain any forms of ID they may need.
Once people can start driving legally, Ms. Perez said, it may help take the pressure off OLA, which has been providing a service that transports people to doctors appointments.
“Right now, we have to drive people to the doctor — they can’t get to their appointment because they’re too afraid to drive,” Ms. Perez said. “We have services right now that bring people to their cancer treatment because they can’t drive there.”
Some people may be hesitant to get licenses, though, because it would acknowledge that they are in the country illegally, noted the East Hampton man anxious to get his license.
However, the new law has a provision that the DMV cannot store or share private information unless ICE obtains a judicial warrant.
Obtaining a driver’s license does not mean that an applicant’s immigration process will be expedited, either, Ms. Perez noted.
“There are people out there that assume that a driver’s license is linked somehow to ‘now everyone is going to get their papers,’” she said. “That’s not true — it’s not connected at all.
“This is a reinstatement of the law. Up until 2001, it was going just fine. It’s not like you’re creating a brand new thing,” she added.
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who co-sponsored the measure, noted that unlicensed drivers are unable to obtain auto insurance, so by providing them the opportunity to get licenses, it also allows them to insure their cars.
“The primary reasons why I supported the bill are because I think it will make the roads safer, and the idea of having a car is essential here on eastern Long Island,” he said.
Mr. Thiele said the new law will improve public safety, and will be a positive for the local economy, i.e. the agriculture and tourism industries.
“I really think that this issue needs to be separated from the national debate on immigration and immigration reform,” he said. “From my perspective, that does need to be resolved, but we have a population of undocumented immigrants who are here, who are going to continue to be here, and allowing them to get driver’s licenses, to me, from an economic and public safety perspective, makes sense.”
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said he hoped that the new policy would improve the lives of some undocumented residents, noting that “people will take certain tests and, hopefully, they’ll have insurance.
“It would be a really important step in allowing people to work,” he said.