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There are benefits to drivers’ licenses for the undocumented

Sullivan County Clerk Dan Briggs has some predictions about what 2019 will bring to his office. One was that there would be longer lines of people waiting to get drivers’ licenses because there are now three different forms of licenses to choose from. The standard ID remains, but residents can also register for an enhanced license or a license that is compliant with the federal Real ID legislation, which would allow the bearer to board airplanes and enter federal buildings.

The identification requirements are rather complex for the Real ID license, and the state has not done as good a job as it might have in explaining the requirements to the general public. 

During a discussion between Briggs and the legislature on January 10, however, the news that prompted the biggest response was when Briggs explained that the New York State Legislature this year is likely to pass legislation that will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for and receive state-issued drivers’ licenses. The details of how the legislation will work have not yet been worked out, but 12 other states, and also the District of Columbia, already issue such licenses.

This announcement prompted county legislator Joe Perrello to say, “Send a letter to wherever this is coming from, and tell them we don’t agree with it.”

A few minutes later though, resident Ken Walter said he would rather ride roadways on which all drivers are tested, licensed and insured rather than share the roads with riders that might not know the rules.

Under current law, people who live in New York State can’t get a license unless they have proof of residency. Under one proposed new law, New York residents would be able to get a “standard license,” without providing a social security number, although they would have to pass a diving test.

Critics have said that the attempt to give licenses to undocumented immigrants is really an attempt to get those immigrants into the voting booth, although sponsors of various undocumented license bills say the licenses would not allow undocumented immigrants to vote.

Another claim critics make is that granting drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants is not fair to the men and women who immigrated to this country legally, nor is it fair to New York taxpayers.

But an analysis from the Fiscal Policy Institute ( says taxpayers would actually be better off if many of the 800,000 undocumented immigrants in the state were allowed to get a license, buy a car and insurance. “The Fiscal Policy analysis projects that revenues from expanding access to drivers’ licenses would more than cover expenses to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and would generate some modest additional revenues for public transportation authorities and county governments.

The institute predicts that more people buying cars and getting licenses would add up to roughly $57 million in combined annual government revenues, plus $26 million in one-time revenues overall, with $24 million of that going to the state government. This includes $7.3 million in new projected revenues from vehicle license plates and title fees.

There are certainly moral arguments to be made. Immigration experts, including Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, say undocumented immigrants are more likely to be pulled over and separated from their families if they don’t have a drivers’ license.

“With every day that passes and New Yorkers still lack access to drivers’ licenses, our roads are less protected, and families are at higher risk of being separated,” Choi said. “Expanding access to drivers’ licenses would be a major step for all New Yorkers, who will be able to drive to and from work, sign up for car insurance and feel less afraid to fulfill day-to-day activity. It is up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to move forward to ensure the safety of our communities.”

Other activists agree, making the point that farm workers contribute to the local economy, whether or not they are documented.

“By [granting] access to drivers’ licenses Gov. Cuomo can change the lives of the dairy workers that bring $14 billion a year to our state economy and allow them to safely travel to work and provide for their children,” said Carly Fox, senior workers’ rights advocate at the Worker Justice Center of New York.

The voters in New York gave Democrats a resounding victory at the polls in November, and with a solidly Democratic Senate it seems likely that they will follow the leads of lawmakers in other states and grant drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants. If the main results of such a policy are increased public safety and a positive economic impact, it would be irresponsible of lawmakers not to adopt it.


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