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Editorial: No driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants

Editorial: No driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants

Clerks, police have strong, legitimate reservations that should be heeded
Editorial: No driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants
Photographer: Shutterstock

For the most part, recycling is a good thing.

Except when it comes to bad ideas.

And one bit of recycling that better belongs in with the trash is a plan to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants in New York.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer tried this in 2007 and was met with a tidal wave of opposition from county clerks, law enforcement and the public. 

That opposition still exists a dozen years later, and for the same good reasons.

On principle, the concept of issuing government documents to non-citizens and others in this country illegally should be discouraged, not promoted and expanded.

What’s the point of having citizenship at all if non-citizens can obtain the same benefits as citizens through a less-stringent set of standards?

Being progressive doesn’t mean you have to be unnecessarily permissive. And being opposed to this particular legislation does not reflect opposition to immigrants — only to people who are in this country illegally.

At the very least, immigrants should be on some kind of path to citizenship before they’re issued official government documents that are available to all citizens.

But there are practical, legitimate reasons for opposing this legislation as well.

One fear, expressed by county clerks, is that issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants will promote fraud.

The more lax requirements for obtaining a license would make it easier for undocumented immigrants to obtain other documents reserved for citizens.

Access to a driver’s license actually gives undocumented immigrants an advantage over citizens, who must produce Social Security cards, birth certificates, utility bills and other forms of ID in order to obtain identification and to document state residency, they say.

Another fear comes from law enforcement officials, who would have to jump through legal hoops to obtain vital information about these particular license holders.

Under the so-called Green Light bill (A3675/S1747), clerks are not allowed to disclose records or information collected from driver’s license or learner’s permit applicants to any law enforcement agency without a judicial subpoena or judicial warrant.

This is designed, we suppose, to prevent police from learning about one’s immigration status that could lead to an immigrant being deported or otherwise detained.

The bill also would require the licensing bureau to notify applicants when law enforcement seeks data collected at the motor vehicles departments. Do we really want to tip off individuals about the fact that they might be under possible investigation by police?
Sheriffs in Rensselaer and Saratoga counties this week called the legislation “misguided” and “bad public policy,” saying they fear it could endanger New Yorkers by depriving police of necessary information about potential criminal suspects, compromise traffic safety and enforcement, create “gaping loopholes” to identity theft and fraud, and make the job of law enforcement even more difficult.

Supporters say that New York already extends government documents to certain immigrants, such as those with temporary citizenship status and those whose applications for citizenship are in the pipeline. 

This new legislation, they say, is merely an extension of existing policy.

Supporters also say it will raise money for the state through the collection of more driver’s license fees. 

As many as 200,000 undocumented immigrants might become eligible, potentially generating millions of dollars for the state that right now goes uncollected from unlicensed drivers.

Supporters also say that these non-citizens would be less likely to be involved in car accidents, more likely to obtain car insurance, and less likely to leave the scene of an accident out of fear of having their citizenship status being reported to immigration officials.

And they say that licensing immigrants would help the upstate economy, particularly in farming communities where undocumented immigrants are often hired and sometimes asked to drive as part of their jobs.

On the money it will generate, should the state really be in the business of selling official documents? If raising money for the Departments of Motor Vehicles was really an important factor, would county clerks, who administer local DMVs, be so opposed?

It might be true that being unlicensed would give undocumented immigrants a good reason to leave the scene of an accident. But the greatest factor of them leaving the scene of an accident would still be their immigration status. That wouldn’t change just because they have a driver’s license. The fear of getting caught would still be there.

As for traffic safety relating to those undocumented immigrants driving without a license, statistics from California show that giving immigrants driver’s licenses has no effect on the number of car crashes, as many experienced drivers don’t have driver’s licenses.

Only 12 states, along with Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. That leaves 38 states — or three-quarters — that don’t. 

There are good reasons why this practice isn’t widespread.

And a recent Siena Poll shows a majority of New Yorkers — 61-34 percent — oppose the idea. Who are these politicians who support this idea listening to?

The arguments in favor of this legislation are persuasive, but not compelling.

Unless greater safeguards are placed in the law to override the fears of county clerks, law enforcement and other public officials — including stricter language to prevent fraud, improve transparency and give police more access to records so they can do their jobs — then lawmakers should trash this legislation, just as they did once before.

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