Local county clerks oppose ‘Green Light’ license law

ELIZABETHTOWN — Local county clerks are joining a growing rallying cry against the so-called “Green Light” law, a controversial measure that will let undocumented immigrants apply for New York driver’s licenses.

The state Legislature passed the bill last week, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed it into law shortly afterward.

There was immediate opposition by county clerks across the state, some of whom said they would challenge the law in court and refuse to issue the licenses when the law takes effect in six months.

Essex County Clerk Joseph Provoncha told the county Board of Supervisors Monday that he wrote a letter to President Donald Trump in opposition of the new state law, arguing that it conflicts with federal policies, including existing immigration law prohibiting employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. In his letter, Provoncha asked that the U.S. Department of Justice review the law to determine whether it adheres to federal law.

He also said the law could burden county clerks’ offices with Department of Motor Vehicles outposts because many aren’t equipped to effectively translate documents required for immigrants to apply for the licenses.

“I’m concerned with the lack of a translator,” he said. “It would be up to us to figure out what they’re saying.”

Franklin County Clerk Kip Cassavaw shared Provoncha’s concerns, going so far as to say that the “Green Light” law was “poorly crafted” and he believes the state is “overstepping its bounds in delving into the immigration controversy” — but he stopped short of opposing the law.

“I opposed the legislation when it was being considered,” he said. “I think a driver’s license is a privilege. I was against the legislation, but now that it’s passed and has become law, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to tell people that I’m not going to uphold the law.”

Cassavaw, who serves as vice chair of the New York State Association of Clerks’ DMV committee, said when he was elected he took two oaths of office: one to uphold the federal Constitution and another to uphold the state Constitution. Implementing this law, he said, puts him at odds with one of those oaths.

He said clerks have reached out to the commissioner of the state DMV to ask for a seat at the table when decisions are made about how to implement the law.

“Legislators and the governor can pass legislation, but when it comes to implementation and how we’re going to deal with it at our level, there’s a lot of hurdles to pass,” Cassavaw said.

“We need guidance from the state DMV office and the commissioner himself in terms of how we’re going to implement this.”

Clinton County Clerk John Zurlo has also been outspoken about his opposition to the Green Light law, according to the Plattsburgh Press-Republican newspaper.

New York offered undocumented immigrants the option of applying for a driver’s license until 2001, when then-Gov. George Pataki signed an executive order requiring proof of immigration status with license applications, according to nonprofit news organization The City. A few years later, Gov. Eliot Spitzer attempted to reverse that change by executive order, but he met significant opposition from county clerks and rescinded the order a few months later.

Supporters of the law

Local advocates, including John Brown Lives Executive Director Martha Swan, have said not offering licenses to undocumented immigrants — many of whom are farm workers — can exacerbate the possibility of exploitation. John Brown Lives is an Essex County nonprofit organization with a focus on social justice and human rights education, inspired by 19th-century abolitionist John Brown who is buried at his farm in Lake Placid.

Swan said last month 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.”

With the state Legislature now majority Democratic, the idea of reopening that door to those unable to apply for a license because of their immigration status resurfaced in a bill proposed by state Sen. Luis Sepulveda, D-Bronx. (Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Sepulveda is a Republican.)

“This legislation will not only provide undocumented immigrants with a legal solution to obtain a driver’s license, but its positive impacts will include significant economic growth, improved road safety, and keeping hardworking families together,” Sepulveda said in a statement. “Millions of dollars will be raised in revenue, auto insurance premiums will decrease, and local economies will see a boom as earnings and spending increase.”

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.

“In a time when immigrants are being scapegoated for every ill in our country, this is our opportunity for New York state to show our courage and strength, and stand up for the marginalized communities,” Sepulveda said. “For economic, safety, and moral reasons, our communities deserve the ‘Green Light’ bill.”