CAPITOL -- When the so-called "Green Light Bill" to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain New York driver's licenses passed the state Assembly Wednesday, the majority of the Capital Region delegation voted against it.
The Democrat-sponsored bill was even opposed by some local Democratic Assembly members, including Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, and Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake. The region's Republican state legislators were unanimous in their opposition to the bill, which they say as aiding people in the country illegally.
The bill, which has been hotly debated for months, passed the Assembly by a a vote of 87-61, though it remains uncertain whether the state Senate will be willing to take it up before the Legislature adjourns next Wednesday.
Bill backers estimate as many as 265,000 New York residents who aren't citizens could qualify for licenses if the law were enacted. Many are doing agricultural work in rural areas where driving is necessary, advocates say.
Polling has shown most New York state residents oppose the measure, though supporters say approving it would recognize that many people in the country illegally are driving and give them a way to become licensed and insured.
Democratic Assemblyman Phil Steck of Colonie, whose 110th Assembly District includes Niskayuna and most of the city of Schenectady, voted in favor of it, as did Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany. Both were co-sponsors of the legislation.
"I think the idea behind this bill is to get undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and get them going down a path more where they can go toward citizenship," Steck said on Thursday. "Having these people in the shadows without a path to get toward citizenship, I think is dangerous. This gives people a way to get a license, if they are out on the road driving."
Steck said he was once involved in an accident with an uninsured motorist in Tennessee, and it was difficult to deal with and led to an increase in his auto insurance premiums. Having thousands of unlicensed drivers on the road, he said, is a "very dangerous thing for citizens of the state."
Among opponents, Santabarbara had announced ahead of the vote that he would be voting "no," even though he noted that both of his parents were immigrants -- legally -- from Italy.
"To get here they followed ALL the rules of our immigration process," Santabarbara said in a post-vote statement. "I was the first in my family to be born here. While I was growing up they often explained to me the process they went through and why it was important to them to do it the right way. Today I cast a NO VOTE on the Green Light Bill because I simply cannot support a bill that offers drivers' licenses to those who DID NOT follow the rules of our immigration process.”
Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, like many Republican legislators, said her concerns include that people living in the country illegally could use a driver's license as a form of identification to register to vote.
"Local Boards of Elections do not currently have a database or mechanism in place to differentiate a legitimate voter from an individual here illegally, should they be granted this privilege," Walsh said.
"Ultimately, mistakes will be made, and voter fraud will occur," Walsh said. "I am extremely concerned that granting this privilege to illegal immigrants will trigger even farther-reaching proposals that reward illegal immigrants rather than hardworking residents."
Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, called the bill a "misguided attempt to reward those who break our laws."
"I'll say it again, this legislation highlights the disparity between Assembly Democrats and the taxpayers," Tague said.
“This is irresponsible and could be dangerous,” said Assemblyman Robert Smullen, R-Johnstown. “It opens up an avenue for those individuals whose intent is to cause harm to U.S. citizens to obtain government documents. Rural upstate counties lack the resources to do comprehensive checks on foreign documents, so this is yet another unfunded mandate that could lead to very serious consequences.”
Steck discounted worries that the license would be used to register to vote. "It says right on the license that it's not for federal purposes," he said.
Under the legislation, undocumented people would be eligible only for a standard license, not enhanced or commercial licenses.
Twelve other states and Washington, D.C., allow those without documentation to obtain driver's licenses.
The companion Senate bill currently remains in the Senate Transportation Committee, with no schedule yet to come to the floor for a vote.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he supports the concept.