Mixed reactions to ‘Green Light’ bill

John Brown Lives backs driver licenses for undocumented immigrants; not all lawmakers agree

LAKE PLACID — A local civil rights group is attempting to shore up support for the so-called “Green Light” bill. Area lawmakers aren’t so sure it’s a good idea.

The bill would restore the ability of undocumented immigrants to apply for standard driver’s licenses in New York state.

New York offered that option until 2001, when then-Gov. George Pataki signed an executive order requiring proof of immigration status with license applications, according to a recent report from nonprofit news organization The City. A few years later, Gov. Eliot Spitzer attempted to reverse that change, but met significant opposition.

With the state legislature now majority Democratic, the idea has resurfaced of opening that door again to the estimated 700,000 New Yorkers unable to apply for a license because of their immigration status.

Martha Swan, executive director of civil rights group John Brown Lives, said not offering licenses to undocumented residents can exacerbate the possibility of exploitation. John Brown Lives is a local nonprofit organization with a focus on social justice and human rights education.

Swan said it’s not uncommon for undocumented residents without driver’s licenses to have to arrange for another person to go to the store for them. That service often comes with a fee attached.

“These are, generally speaking, some of the poorest and most underpaid people in our communities,” she said.

“Especially in an area like this, especially if you work on a farm in a rural area, the isolation can be profound. When there’s that isolation, there’s a dependency that can grow, and often with that kind of dependency on others to get food, go to the doctor or go to a store, that can subject someone to the possibility of exploitation or being mistreated.”

That’s why John Brown Lives is collecting signatures in support of the bill. Those signatures will be placed on what Swan described as “postcards,” which will be sent to state lawmakers.

“I think it’s so important for legislators to see that here, in the North Country, we’re weighing in on an issue that maybe people wouldn’t necessarily think is having a direct impact on North Country communities,” she said. “It’s important to demonstrate that there are people here that care about this issue.”

State Dems plan outreach, education

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told WAMC Public Radio last week that Democrats have the votes to pass the bill, but first he wants to educate residents about the bill’s potential benefits.

In a report released in February, the left-leaning Fiscal Policy Institute estimated that 265,000 undocumented immigrants statewide would apply for driver’s licenses if the law were changed.

Between licenses and registrations, new cars, and an ensuing bump in sales and gas tax revenue, FPI projected the law change could bring a one-time revenue boost of $26 million and an increase of $57 million in revenue generation annually.

Heastie also told WAMC that a study conducted in California, where undocumented immigrants are able to obtain licenses, showed a decrease in hit-and-run incidents that may be connected to the licenses. Undocumented drivers who don’t have a license may be more likely to leave the scene rather than face police.

Locally, North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi said he sees no reason to not let undocumented immigrants obtain licenses, especially in an area where many residents have to commute to get to work.

“It makes sense. We have a lot of J-1s (visa workers) that probably need to get to work. In different places, it’s difficult to find housing,” he said. “In some cases, they may be located some distance away from where they’re working. I see no reason not to.”

Voters, some lawmakers remain opposed

A Siena College poll conducted earlier this year showed that among registered voters, 61% of those who responded opposed the idea of letting undocumented immigrants receive driver’s licenses. Of those who identified themselves as Democrats, 45% were opposed; and among Republicans, 84%.

Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, who represents all of Essex and Warren counties and portions of Saratoga and Washington counties, said he’s opposed to the bill.

“The concern I have is — what is the endgame?” he said. “Is it as simple as, ‘We want to collect revenue on driver’s licenses,’ or are we heading to where we want to establish and make it easier for these people to vote?”

Stec said some municipalities on the West Coast let non-citizens vote in certain local races. Last year, San Francisco allowed non-citizens with or without legal status to vote in a local school board election, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“That’s not my understanding of what the framers of the Constitution intended,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical that only citizens are allowed to vote. If (the bill comes to the floor), I will be voting in the negative.”

Davina Winemiller, the new supervisor of the town of St. Armand, said she believes allowing undocumented immigrants access to licenses would be unfair to those who enter the country legally.

“I think it’s a disservice to those that come in legally and do so the right way and follow our laws,” she said.

“I’m opposed to allowing 100% illegal immigrants the right to licenses,” she added. “This country was founded on immigration, but I believe it’s crucial that anyone that enters this country does so legally.”