Driver’s Licenses for the Undocumented: New York’s Immigration Land Mine

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In the 12 years since fierce backlash forced Gov. Eliot Spitzer to abandon a proposal to offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, New York has fashioned much of its political identity around a commitment to immigrant issues.

That resolve has become especially apparent during President Trump’s tenure, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and a new Democratic majority in the State Legislature have pardoned undocumented immigrants, granted them access to college scholarships and limited deportable offenses, in an effort to cast the state as Washington’s opposite.

But even as those other measures have sailed through the new Albany, one measure has remained stalled: the newly revived proposal to allow undocumented immigrants to drive.

Despite immigration advocates’ efforts to cast it as both an economic boon and a social justice imperative, the so-called Green Light bill has met persistent opposition from law enforcement and large swaths of the public. Republicans have bought Facebook ads denouncing the effort. Even the National Republican Congressional Committee blasted New York’s bill last week.

The opposition has taken hold in the State Senate, where lawmakers from moderate suburban districts, many of whom won by razor-thin margins last year, hold sway. Those senators have been wary this year of some of the progressive left’s marquee causes, worrying that they might alienate their constituents and possibly damage their re-election chances.

While the State Assembly, which is dominated by city legislators, passed the bill on Wednesday, the Senate had not scheduled the measure for a vote. (Several Democrats in the Assembly voted against it.)

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, has declared his support for the idea, saying last month that it was one of his 10 legislative priorities for the remainder of the session. But he also has suggested that he does not expect it to pass before the session is scheduled to end on Wednesday — and one of his staunchest allies has explicitly advised suburban lawmakers not to vote for it.

Immigrant rights advocates and progressive lawmakers said the hesitation suggested the flimsiness of New York’s pro-immigrant rhetoric.

“I’d like to believe that this blue wave also came with the political courage to do the right thing,” Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, a Democrat from Queens, said. Ms. Cruz, who was formerly undocumented, won her seat last year. She added, “I’d like to believe that immigrant communities are more than just a talking point during elections.”

Twelve other states and Washington, D.C., allow undocumented immigrants to drive. New York has the third largest undocumented population in the country, with an estimated 940,000 people, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit group.

The driver’s license debate has roiled several administrations and spanned decades.

Before 2001, New York residents could apply for driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, began requiring applicants to have a Social Security number, effectively barring those without legal status.

In 2007, Mr. Spitzer, a Democrat, announced that he would undo that policy — only to meet a ferocious outcry across the country, even among liberals. Opponents at the time included Kirsten Gillibrand, then a member of the House of Representatives; Hillary Clinton, who vacillated on the issue then came out against it; and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, then the Erie County clerk. (All three have since reversed their positions.)

Faced with plummeting approval ratings and mutiny from the state’s county clerks, who issue licenses, Mr. Spitzer rescinded his proposal less than two months later.

This year, activists believed their long-fought battle would finally end. But even as Mr. Trump’s immigration policies have activated the Democratic base, opponents have mounted a vigorous — and effective — campaign against the policy. A poll released on Monday by Siena College showed that more than half of New Yorkers surveyed opposed giving licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Senator John J. Flanagan, a Long Island lawmaker who leads the Republican minority, recently said that passing the bill would be a “colossal political mistake” for Democrats. Nick Langworthy, the incoming chairman of the state Republican Party, called the bill a product of the “extreme left” that showed disdain for the rule of law.

County clerks have again denounced the proposal, with some vowing to defy it if it becomes law, and county sheriffs have warned that it would constrain their ability to enforce traffic safety.

The issue is so fraught that even some who publicly support the bill have privately worked to block it. At a fund-raiser earlier this month on Long Island, Mr. Cuomo and Jay Jacobs, the leader of the state Democratic Party, met with five suburban senators and told them that voting for it would be politically perilous, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

Mr. Jacobs, a close ally of Mr. Cuomo, would not comment on that exchange. But he said that several senators as well as Assembly members had asked for his opinion on the issue, and that he had advised them not to heed the demands of the “far left.”

“I think there is a measure of arrogance in forcing people to accept things that they’re not willing to,” Mr. Jacobs said. “Those people, particularly in the city, frankly, who are pushing this, are really shortsighted in my view.”

He added that although he said he supported expanding licenses in theory, he would rather “play the long game” and not risk the Democratic majorities in both chambers.

None of the six Democratic senators from Long Island returned requests for comment.

Robert Mujica, the governor’s budget director, said he was present at the Long Island meeting and denied that the governor had discouraged senators from voting for the proposal.

He acknowledged that they had discussed polling on the issue but said the discussion was limited to why Mr. Cuomo believed expansion had to be done legislatively, as in other states, rather than via executive order. (Some legal experts have suggested that an executive order would work.)

To counter opponents’ arguments, advocates this year have waged a concerted educational campaign, describing how the proposal could reduce hit-and-runs, drive down insurance rates and generate $50 million each year for the state, according to estimates from the left-leaning Fiscal Policy Institute. Assembly staffers distributed talking points and charts to members to help them convince wary constituents.

Senator Luis R. Sepúlveda, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the informational effort was intended to succeed where Mr. Spitzer had failed, by centering arguments with bipartisan appeal rather than focusing on social justice arguments about immigrants’ rights.

Supporters have also emphasized that the bill would not provide a path to citizenship and would not enable licensees to board planes.

“National tensions around immigration are not just far-right-wing Republicans in border states,” said Assemblyman Marcos Crespo of the Bronx, the bill’s other lead sponsor. “I have always tried to be pragmatic about getting things done, and if that means I don’t tout the moral arguments of legislation, then so be it.”

Still, Mr. Sepúlveda said the Legislature faced a clear ethical choice. He criticized his colleagues for what he said were political rather than ideological calculations.

“I have difficulty accepting the fear of losing political positions,” said Mr. Sepúlveda, who also represents the Bronx. “I think it will be a stain on the Senate if the Assembly passes this and the Senate doesn’t.”

There are some signs that the opposition has relented. The Business Council of New York State, an influential group that often aligns with conservatives, recently backed the bill. Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, announced his support on Tuesday.

And Monday’s Siena poll, though still on balance unfavorable to the bill, showed a drastic increase in approval. The percentage of New Yorkers who support the bill had risen to 41 percent, from 34 percent in a March Siena poll. Forty percent of suburban voters now support the bill — up from only 27 percent three months ago.

Still, some people who would be most affected by the policy said they did not hold any particular expectations for success.

Gloria Jiménez Ortiz, 24, who arrived in upstate New York from Guatemala without documentation five years ago, said she and her husband were driving to buy food last year when they were pulled over. The police officer did not issue any tickets, but because her husband did not have a license, the officer called immigration officials.

Ms. Jiménez was released because she was pregnant, but her husband was detained for 10 months, she said. She gave birth while he was in custody.

Since then, she has felt unsure of New York’s promise of refuge.

“They only protect people with documents,” she said. “But I don’t have anything.”

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