Undocumented Immigrants in NYC May Soon Be Able to Get a Driver’s License

The City Council passed a resolution Wednesday declaring its support for a plan to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license regardless of their immigration status.  The council also called for state legislation.

“Si se puede – Yes we can,” shouted a group of immigrants, advocates and council members from the steps of City Hall, after their victory vote in the morning meeting of the Committee on Immigration. Later, the resolution was passed again by a full council vote.

If New York becomes the 13th state to pass such a law, approximately 725,000 undocumented immigrants who live in New York City will become eligible to apply for a driver’s license without having a Social Security number, as  New York law currently requires.

(Ero Partsakoulaki/NY City Lens)

Driving daily for work or daily activities without a license and a registered vehicle, undocumented immigrants are five times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash compared to licensed drivers, according to the American Automobile Association. They are also at risk of arrest and deportation.

Advocates and immigrants talked about the increased level of pressure to the daily routines of unlicensed drivers during their testimony. “Immigrants have to constantly put their lives and the lives of family and friends at risk in order to drive to work, take children to school, and even go to the grocery store to put food on the table,” said Stephanie Gomez, the director of Immigration Initiatives at the Hispanic Federation, who was 12 years old when her undocumented immigrant mother’s driver’s license was taken away in 2002. “I know firsthand what it is like and I would not wish it on anyone.”

The bill is seen not only as a means to enhance road safety and accountability, but is expected to generate more money for the state; up to $57 million in annual state revenue and $26 million in one-time revenue through taxes and fees. Auto insurance premiums for all New Yorkers are also expected to go down by a moderate estimate of $17 per person each year, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, the primary sponsor of the legislation, along with Council Member Carlos Menchaca, hugged each other after the resolution got passed. Later on the steps of City Hall, they celebrated and chanted along with immigrants and other city officials.

Council Member Ydanis Rodriquez sponsored the resolution.

Council Member Ydanis Rodriquez sponsored the resolution. (Ero Partsakoulaki/NY City Lens)

“This legislation will make our roads safer, the drivers accountable,” said Rodriguez.

“I am an immigrant, born and raised in another country, but I also belong to the United States,” he said. “We are sending a message to the State of New York that 8.5 million New Yorkers are saying enough is enough.”

A few immigrants who testified also raised the importance of obtaining driver’s licenses so they can be prepared in case of an emergency. “In 2016, I had to be transferred urgently to the hospital, but no one in my family was a licensed driver,” said Ocasiano Hernandez, a resident of Staten Island and member of Make the Road, a non profit organization that is pushing for immigrants’ and working class communities rights. “The taxi we called arrived 30 minutes late and when I got to the hospital the doctors told me that if I hadn’t gotten there within the next hour, I would have died.”

However, Council Member Robert Holden, who voted against the resolution during the morning hearing, asked for more debate and argued that in New Mexico and Georgia there have been many incidents of licenses being bought by residents coming from different states. “How will the state control that those applying for licenses are residents of New York state?” said Holden. He also mentioned Oregon’s successful referendum in 2014 to deny short-term drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants.

One council member, Kalman Yeger abstained, saying that the resolution was brought for vote before the committee in a rush, violating traditions of the council as a body. “I can’t deliver on its merits because we should not be notified on Friday afternoon that on Wednesday we should vote on emergenecy legislation,” he said. “What’s the rush?”

Carlos Menchaca, chair of the Committee on Immigration, at the steps of the City Hall. (Ero Partsakoulaki/NY City Lens)

Proponents of the bill dismissed the claims, arguing there is a momentum to push for the legislation as soon as possible.

“The Act for Driver’s License Access, introduced in January by New York Senator Luis Spulveda, and Assembly Member Marcos Crespo was not mentioned in the proposed 2019-20 fiscal year budget,” said Menchaca. “It is therefore very important to push this legislation forward and this is the reason we had do act fast. The questions raised will be addressed at the state level.”

The legislation is expected to affect mostly upstate New York, rural and suburban regions, where transportation barriers limit access to public transportation.  However, many areas in New York City are also poorly served by the public transportation system. “Think about neighborhoods like St. Albans and South Jamaica or Glen Oaks in Queens or Stapleton and the North Shore of Staten Island,” said Theodore Moore, the director of local policy and kegislation at the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella policy and advocacy organization.

The Department of Motor Vehicles would be the authorized institution to issue driver’s licenses to those currently ineligible to apply because of their immigration status. The act would also prohibit the use of the card as evidence of citizenship, while protecting the applicants’ privacy of personal information collected by the department.

In 2002, after increased security measures prompted by the attacks of 9/11 attacks, then-Governor George Pataki instituted a requirement that all driver’s license applicants provide a Social Security number to prove their immigration status. Government officials estimate that approximately 500,000 New Yorkers lost their eligibility for a driver’s license due to this policy.

The attempt to expand the access of driver’s licenses to all residents of the state regardless of their immigration status began in 2007 by Governor Eliot Laurence Spitzer. The measure faced  overwhelming opposition and was finally withdrawn.  Now however, with the Democrats controlling the Senate since the November elections, there are greater chances for such legislation to be passed.

To date, 12 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses. They include New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Delaware, Illinois, Washington, Maryland, Vermont, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii and California.