New York’s Undocumented Immigrants Driver’s License Law

As of last week, New York is now the 13th state to authorize driver’s licenses for immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally.

The Democrat-led state Senate voted 33-29 in favor of the bill after several hours of debate, and the legislation was quickly signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The Assembly had passed the measure the week before.

Limits on undocumented immigrants obtaining driver’s licenses date back to 2002, when former New York Governor George E. Pataki issued an executive order directing the Department of Motor Vehicles to require a social security number — unavailable to those in the country illegally — before issuing a driver’s license.

Two years ago, New York began issuing REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses. Although issuing driver’s licenses is a state responsibility, the REAL ID Act of 2005 set certain standards for state-issued identity documents that are used for federal purposes, like boarding a plane or entering a military base. The law requires that applicants for identity documents provide paperwork that proves their lawful status in the United States.

It also allows states to issue different forms of driver’s licenses, regular ones as well as licenses that do not confer any other identification privileges.

But even that limited license required that applicants have lawful status, either citizenship, “green card” permanent residency or official temporary residency, like that currently conferred on DACA “dreamers,” who were brought into the country illegally as children.

However, even those limited licenses were not available to those who entered the country illegally as adults. Thus the push, intensified over the past year by elected officials and immigrant advocates, to provide licenses to all applicants who pass the relevant tests for driving licensure, regardless of their immigration status. That effort is what propelled the recent bill’s passage and signing into law.

There were, and are, concerns about what the new law might inadvertently spawn. Opponents express concern that licenses granted undocumented immigrants might be used to obtain fraudulent voting privileges, that granting them rewards the act of entering the country illegally, and that broadening the pool of driver’s licensees might erode the concept of citizenship and will only serve to increase illegal immigration.

The law’s defenders, however, point out that undocumented workers are already driving on the state’s roads, and that offering them licenses will serve to help ensure that they are qualified, capable drivers, and that they have obtained required insurance.

Supporters of the legislation when it was pending included the Business Council of New York State, the state’s largest business organization, as well as immigrant advocates who argued that immigrants, especially upstate, require licenses to get to work, care for their families and take care of everyday tasks.

Others put the law’s passage in the context of the broader issue of immigration. “In a time when immigrants are being scapegoated for every ill in our country,” Bronx Democrat Luis Sepúlveda, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said, “this is our opportunity for New York State to show our courage and strength and stand up for the marginalized communities.”

As it happens, there are fears as well that the law could end up harming immigrants who are undocumented. Governor Cuomo himself, although a long-time supporter of offering licenses to illegal immigrants and who signed the bill into law within hours of its passage, expressed his concern that federal immigration officials might try to obtain state driver’s license data to target immigrants for deportation.

The Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that there are approximately 752,000 undocumented immigrants over the age of 16 in the state. And undocumented immigrants account for a significant number of unlicensed drivers in New York.

Limited public transportation outside of New York City makes driving a daily necessity for accessing work, school, medical facilities and other services. And in rural upstate New York, farms and other agribusinesses rely on undocumented workers who often travel long distances to work.

The most important upshot of the new law, however, at least as it relates to the larger citizenry, is that it will help ensure that people behind the wheel are duly schooled in traffic rules and adequately skilled in driving cars.

There are already too many dangers on our roads, drivers who are impaired by alcohol or drugs, elderly people who may no longer be able to react to unexpected situations quickly, and younger ones who are prone to aggressive driving or road rage.

Removing from New York roads one set of unsafe drivers — those who, out of fear of deportation, have never undergone the training and testing necessary to obtain a driver’s license — is, in the end, likely a good thing.