New York state approves licenses for undocumented immigrants

New York passed a measure to become the 13th state to allow immigrants living in the country illegally the ability to obtain a driver's license. The bill's supporters see it as a landmark step for immigrant rights. Critics worry it waters down U.S. citizenship. 

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Traffic fills the streets in the Manhattan borough of New York City, March 27, 2019. New York recently became the 13th state to authorize drivers' licenses for immigrants living in the country illegally.

New York became the 13th state to authorize driver's licenses for immigrants who entered the United States illegally under legislation approved by lawmakers and signed into law Monday night.

The Democrat-led state Senate voted 33-29 in favor of the bill after several hours of debate and was quickly signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. The Assembly passed the measure last week.

Supporters included the Business Council of New York State, the state's largest business organization, as well as many immigrant advocates who argued that immigrants, especially in the Upstate region, require licenses to get to work, care for their families, and take care of everyday tasks.

"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," said Bronx Democrat Luis Sepúlveda, the Senate sponsor of the bill.

Republican lawmakers decried the bill, which they said would reward people who had violated federal immigration laws and possibly lead to voter fraud if immigrants use the licenses to try to register to vote.

"This is not about driver's licenses, this is about law and order and the United States' right to defend the sanctity and sovereignty of our borders," said Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda. "We are watering down citizenship. We are cheapening what it means to be an American citizen."

Passage of the bill was a major victory for immigrants and immigrant advocacy groups. Scores of immigrants gathered at the state Capitol to witness Monday's vote.

Driver's licenses would be "a game changer," according to Jorge Garcia, an immigrant from Long island who said he needs a car to get to his job in a warehouse. He has two children, both of whom are legal residents, and worries about being deported if he is caught driving without a license.

"This means so much to us, to my family," he said through an interpreter. "We won't have that fear of facing a judge if you get a ticket."

Mr. Cuomo had long said he supported the measure but on Monday cast doubt on the bill's fate, saying he was concerned that U.S. immigration officials might try to obtain state driver's license data to target immigrants for deportation. He requested a legal review by the state solicitor general, who works for Attorney General Letitia James.

Supporters of the bill had dismissed Mr. Cuomo's concerns as a red herring, and Ms. James herself quickly weighed in, though she said her office wouldn't speculate on what federal authorities might do in response.

"The legislation is well crafted and contains ample protections for those who apply for driver's licenses," Ms. James wrote in a statement. "If this bill is enacted and challenged in court, we will vigorously defend it."

Mr. Cuomo signed the bill later in the day.

"Gov. Cuomo has supported this policy for over a decade," Mr. Cuomo's counsel, Alphonso David, said in a statement announcing his intentions. "The key to this bill is not the political intent but the legal effect. We hope the attorney general's assessment is correct."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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