County clerks: No driving for illegal immigrants

ALBANY — The state Association of County Clerks registered its opposition Monday to controversial legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for New York drivers’ licenses.

The clerks — many of whom oversee motor vehicle bureaus through arrangements with state government — said they are not equipped to verify the authenticity of identification documents from other nations. The association also noted that many counties lack the staffing and translation services to deal with an expected onslaught of license applications.

“County level DMVs have not been required to verify foreign documents in the past as this is currently a federal function, most commonly done during the working visa process,” Judith Hunter, president of the clerks’ association, said in a statement.

Hunter is the clerk of Steuben County’s government. Clerks in New York are separately elected officials. The association is a bipartisan group.

“A haven”

The Democrat-led state Assembly is expected to give its approval Wednesday to legislation that would allow an estimated 275,000 people who are in the United States illegally to get state licenses. However, the fate of the measure in the Senate, also controlled by Democrats, is uncertain, according to supporters, due to hesitancy on the part of some Long Island lawmakers to back the bill.

In a sign of how politically charged the legislation has become, the incoming chairman of the state Republican Party, Nick Langworthy of Erie County, visited the statehouse Monday to criticize the measure and to castigate Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others who support it.

Langworthy said if the legislation becomes law, “it is going to make New York a haven for people coming here illegally.”

Little opposed

The bill’s sponsors argue that New York roads will be safer if those now driving illegally could acquire licenses and automobile insurance, suggesting that option would decrease the incentive for motorists who cause crashes to flee the scene of the accident.

Betty Little, R-Queensbury, is among the senators who have signaled their opposition to the measure.

The proposal drew the surprise endorsement last week of the Business Council of New York State, an advocacy group that typically speaks out against measures that have the potential to increase taxes.

Langworthy jabbed the council as one of Cuomo’s “puppets,” and repeated a dig landed recently by Ortt, who called the organization the “Business As Usual Council.”

Office will refuse

Some clerks, among them Niagara County’s Joseph Jastrzemski, say that because they are sworn to uphold the federal Constitution they should not be directed by lawmakers to issue licenses, a secure document, to people who are in this country illegally. Jastrzemski has vowed his office will refuse to process applications from undocumented immigrants.

Current law requires license applicants to furnish their Social Security numbers before obtaining a license.

The legislation, which has advanced in both the Assembly and Senate, would allow applicants to state that they have not been issued a Social Security number and provide other identification documents.

Langworthy, in response to questions, conceded the issue of trying to stop unlicensed motorists from getting behind the wheel is a challenging one, but argued a stronger border has been needed for years.

Upstate opposition

A Siena College poll issued in March found that that 61% of New York voters oppose the legislation. Opposition was most intense in the upstate regions, while the strongest support for it came in the New York City metropolitan area.

Backers of the legislation say support has grown since former Gov. Eliot Spitzer triggered a storm of controversy in 2007 by pushing to allow undocumented immigrants to get licenses. Spitzer withdrew the proposal after it was assailed by many of his fellow Democrats.

Voters show more enthusiasm for the idea if the question points out that no license is issued unless the applicant passes a road test and has presented identification approved by the state, said Abdullah Younus, director of political engagement for the New York Immigration Coalition.

“This is about giving people the ability to drive safely on the streets,” Younus said.

Also backing the legislation is 1199 SEIU, a large health care workers union headquartered in New York City.

Held accountable

A total of 12 states now allow immigrants to apply for licenses by using documents from other nations.

Langworthy’s involvement in the debate suggests the legislation could become a wedge issue in New York’s 2020 legislative races. Langworthy acknowledged that putting the Senate back under GOP control is one of his highest priorities. Lawmakers who favor the measure “will be held accountable” by voters, the GOP boss said the legislative session is slated to conclude June 19.

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