hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues May 2019


License to drive

N.Y., Mass. debate changes to help immigrant workers



Emerson Exante, a legal immigrant from Guatemala who works at a Washington County dairy farm, shows off his new New York driver’s license. But for the many undocumented workers at farms and elsewhere in the region, getting a license isn’t an option. Legislative proposals to change that have lately been drawing support -- and strong opposition. Joan K. Lentini photo

Emerson Exante, a legal immigrant from Guatemala who works at a Washington County dairy farm, shows off his new New York driver’s license. But for the many undocumented workers at farms and elsewhere in the region, getting a license isn’t an option. Legislative proposals to change that have lately been drawing support -- and strong opposition. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer

Emerson Exante, an immigrant from Guatemala who works on a Washington County dairy farm, is enjoying a new sense of freedom: Over the winter, he obtained a New York state driver’s license.

A legal immigrant who lives and works in the Hudson Falls area, Exante said being able to drive is opening up new options for him in a mainly rural region.

“I needed it to go to college,” Exante said, explaining that a driver’s license will allow him to commute to classes at either Hudson Valley Community College or SUNY Adirondack.
“I needed to go to the store and other places. Now I can visit my father,” who works at another dairy farm about 45 minutes away, he added.

But getting a driver’s license isn’t an option for the many undocumented immigrants who live and work at farms around the region and in a variety of other jobs from restaurant kitchens to construction and landscaping crews.

In New York and Massachusetts, immigration advocates are pushing to change that by allowing any state resident, regardless of immigration status, to obtain a driver’s license. Twelve other states, including Vermont and Connecticut, already allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

Supporters of these proposals have highlighted the challenges faced by immigrants who live and work on the region’s farms, where basic necessities such as food and health care are often miles away and public transportation is nonexistent.

In New York, supporters have been rallying in Albany in recent months to push for passage of the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, which they’ve dubbed the “Green Light bill.” Although similar proposals have fizzled in recent years, supporters hope this time could be different now that Democrats control both houses of the Legislature. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has indicated he would sign the Green Light bill if it passes.

But the idea is drawing opposition from many elected officials in the region. Last month, state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, was among a group of area Republican officeholders who spoke out against the Green Light bill in a press conference at the Rensselaer County Department of Motor Vehicles office in Troy. Among the other officials participating were Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin, Assemblyman Jake Ashby, the Columbia and Rensselaer county sheriffs, and the Rensselaer and Saratoga county clerks. (County clerks run local offices of the state DMV in most of New York.)

Contacted later, Jordan, whose district extends across Columbia, Rensselaer, southern Washington and eastern Saratoga counties, pointed out that the proposed Green Light law would bar the DMV from sharing certain information about drivers with law enforcement agencies. She said this could pose a threat to public safety, and she also cited concerns about traffic safety and the possibility of various kinds of fraud.

More fundamentally, Jordan said her objections are based on “the issue of fairness and respect for the law.”

“Why should New York create a two-tiered system for the issuance of driver’s licenses, one for law-abiding citizens who followed the rules, and another for illegal immigrants who broke the rules?” she asked.

Supporters of the proposed changes see driving privileges as a matter of fairness to people who are living, working and going to school in the United States, whether they’re here legally or not. They also say the move would raise revenues and make the roads safer by allowing undocumented immigrants, who in some cases may be driving anyway, to complete licensing requirements and get insurance.

In Massachusetts, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, is one of the sponsors of the Work & Family Mobility Act, which would allow all state residents, regardless of legal status, to obtain the state’s standard five-year driver’s license.

With federal efforts to overhaul the immigration system having stalled repeatedly over the past two decades, Farley-Bouvier and others say states need to act to support immigrants who are already here and contributing to local communities and the economy.

“The farther we go on with the dysfunction of the immigration system, the more it becomes clear that states have to take action,” Farley-Bouvier said. “They can’t fix the immigration system, but they can control driver’s licenses.”

Licenses and Real ID
There is no federal law restricting the issuance of driver’s licenses only to U.S. citizens. Under the Constitution, states set their own rules about who qualifies for a license.

New York and many other states routinely issued licenses to their residents regardless of immigration status in the years before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. For decades before that, the only concern at most state motor vehicles departments was whether applicants could prove their identity and age and that they lived in the state and could drive.

California was the first state, in 1993, to require license applicants to submit a federal Social Security number or a valid reason why they couldn’t get one.

But attitudes about identification changed after the Sept. 11 attacks, in which terrorists took advantage of weak rules to get fake IDs.

At the federal level, Congress responded by passing the Real ID Act in 2005, setting national standards for the identification required to board domestic flights and enter federal facilities, among other provisions. Because the U.S. lacks a national ID program, the act created new identification standards for driver’s licenses, which most adults have. The act also set up a state-to-state driver’s license data sharing program.

Advocates for privacy, civil liberties and limited government immediately protested, calling the act a vast, unconstitutional overreach. They warned that the Real ID Act would essentially create an internal passport system, expose license holders to identity theft and privacy invasion, and cost states millions of local dollars to update their data systems.

Congress tried to amend or repeal the Real ID Act several times. By 2009, 25 states had passed either binding legislation or resolutions prohibiting participation, and the deadline for compliance was moved repeatedly. Final implementation, when travelers will no longer be able to use non-compliant ID to board a flight or enter a federal facility, is now set for Oct. 1, 2020.

Even when it’s fully implemented, the Real ID Act explicitly allows states to issue driver’s licenses and ID cards that are not compliant, as long as the two types of documents are easily told apart. Compliance with the law is voluntary. Aside from possible inconvenience to state residents, states don’t lose anything if they don’t participate.

Not everyone has a driver’s license, so even after the deadline, people who want to fly or enter a federal facility will still be able to show federally accepted ID such as passports, state-issued compliant ID cards, or Trusted Traveler cards issued by the Department of Homeland Security.
Of the 12 states that already allow people to obtain driver’s licenses without proof of lawful presence in the country, six were among those that had objected to the Real ID Act.

States issue a variety of driving documents, including passenger, commercial and learner’s licenses. New York and Vermont also offer U.S. citizens an enhanced license that allows them to travel by land or sea to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean without a passport. Massachusetts only offers a choice of standard or Real ID-compliant licenses.


Safety at stake?
In New York, the Green Light bill would allow applicants for passenger vehicle licenses to show documents from countries other than the United States to prove their age and identity, without requiring legal immigration status. Applicants would have to comply with all other DMV requirements, including proving state residency and passing the vision, written and road tests.
Rules for Real ID-compliant and enhanced licenses would not change. The DMV would not be allowed to disclose applicants’ personal information, including which identification documents they used, to law enforcement agencies without a judicial warrant or subpoena.

The state already participates in a state-level compact to share information about driving records, but it does not share data from the Real ID Act database.

Advocates for immigrants say an estimated 265,000 undocumented immigrants in the state could become eligible for licenses. If they all obtained licenses, the resulting DMV fees and taxes would yield $57 million in annual revenues plus $26 million in one-time revenues.

Saratoga County Clerk Craig Hayner, who opposes the bill, cited National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data that he said showed 10 of the 12 states that allow people to get licenses without proof of legal status had increases in traffic fatalities between 2015 and 2016, and six of them had increases the following year. New York had a decline in traffic fatalities over the same period.

Jordan said in an e-mail that “these statistics speak for themselves.”
But many factors affect traffic fatality rates, including the number of drivers in a state, miles driven, road conditions and how states deal with safety issues such as seatbelt use and distracted and impaired driving. One of the states Hayner cited is Colorado, which in 2014 became one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana.

Out of necessity, many undocumented immigrants are already driving in states where they can’t get licenses. Little research has been done on what happens when that changes.

In one study in 2017, researchers at Stanford University looked at accident statistics in California for the year after the state started issuing licenses regardless of legal status. Although the number of accidents overall, including fatal accidents, was unchanged, the number of hit-and-run accidents decreased by about 4,000. Researchers suggested this could be because newly licensed drivers were more likely to stay at the scene of crashes and cooperate with police.
Jordan contended that because the DMV would only be required to keep license applications for six months, unscrupulous people could apply for a new license every six months, leading to fraud anywhere a driver’s license could be used for identification. The DMV’s staff isn’t trained in handling foreign documents and would be unable to detect forgeries, she said.

Also, Jordan wrote, “the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 mandates that states provide individuals with the opportunity to register to vote at the same time they apply for a driver’s license. This bill does not address that issue. Voting is a legal right for citizens and must remain that way.”

Other states have found ways to deal with this issue. Connecticut, for example, marks some licenses with “D.O.” – drive only – so they can’t be used to register to vote.

Regarding the bill’s restrictions on data sharing, Jordan pointed out the sheriffs of Columbia, Rensselaer and Saratoga counties “have already gone on record about how damaging this and other provisions would be to their ability to ensure public safety.”


Opposition and support
Jordan said she has been hearing from constituents who are “overwhelmingly opposed to giving illegal immigrants driver’s licenses.” She pointed to an online survey on her website in which 897 people opposed the idea while 344 were in favor. Another 261 people signed her online petition against the proposal.

All of those numbers represent a tiny sampling of Jordan’s 300,000 constituents. But a Siena College poll released in March found that 61 percent of voters statewide opposed granting licenses to drivers regardless of their immigration status. The Siena poll found strong opposition to the idea among upstate, suburban, Republican and white voters, while Democrats and New York City residents were closely divided, and black and Latino voters supported the idea by small margins.

In Washington County, where many large dairy farms depend on immigrant labor, some farmers are expressing support for the licensing proposal.

Stuart Ziehm, whose Tiashoke Farm in the town of Cambridge employs a number of legal immigrants, said he’s in favor.

“Workers want to shop on their own schedule and get a breath of fresh air on their time off and enjoy the community,” Ziehm said. “It improves their quality of life. They can visit their family a few towns or a few farms over. There are a lot of positives to it.”

Exante, the newly licensed driver in Hudson Falls, previously worked at Ziehm’s farm, and his father still works there.


‘We know they’re driving’
In Massachusetts, Farley-Bouvier and other legislators introduced their proposed driver’s license bill in January. The bill would allow people who can’t prove lawful presence or who don’t care to submit a Social Security number to get a standard driver’s license – one that’s not compliant with the federal Real ID law.

Under the proposal, people with standard licenses would be protected from Registry of Motor Vehicles disclosure of their documents, could not be discriminated against because of their license, and could not use their license as evidence of citizenship or immigration status.
Farley-Bouvier has been pushing for driver’s license access for many years but says attitudes are shifting.

“There’s a growing understanding that driving doesn’t have anything to do with immigration status,” she said.

The Immigration Policy Institute estimates that 173,000 of the state’s 1.1 immigrants lack documentation.

Especially in rural areas like the Berkshires, “people need to drive to work and school,” Farley-Bouvier said. “We know they’re driving. We’d like to see licensed and insured people on the roads.”

Labor, faith-based and social justice organizations are supporting the act, she said. Licensing undocumented drivers also would ensure that everybody is paying a fair share of Registry of Motor Vehicles fees, she said.

Fears of voter fraud have proved unfounded in states that offer licenses to undocumented immigrants, she said.

“The idea that a driver’s license equals a vote is completely false,” Farley-Bouvier said. “There are people with driver’s licenses who can’t vote now. The secretary of state’s office has ways to prevent that.”

A driver’s license also is insufficient to get public assistance such as housing or food benefits, she said, and it’s not necessary to have a driver’s license to open a bank account.
Connecticut started issuing licenses to undocumented people four years ago, although applicants there are required to sign an affidavit saying they’ll seek legal status as soon as possible. The move has had “little to no negative impact,” Farley-Bouvier said.

“The insurance companies became involved and supported it,” she said. “They saw a new market. And if one person in an accident isn’t insured, we all pay for it.”

Although Massachusetts offers licenses that comply with the Real ID law, many drivers are opting to obtain or renew standard licenses instead.

“There have been more people than expected who qualify for Real ID who are getting standard licenses,” Farley-Bouvier said. “I’ll get a standard license when I renew my license.”
Farley-Bouvier said she’s lived in places where adults must carry ID at all times and produce it on demand.

“I don’t want that,” she said.

The proposal remains under review by the House transportation committee.
“It continues to be a struggle to pass this, but there’s more momentum than we’ve ever had,” Farley-Bouvier said.


Vermont’s experience
Vermont started issuing driver privilege cards to undocumented residents in 2014, primarily to serve the state’s estimated 1,200 to 1,500 undocumented farm workers.

As of late last month, Vermont had issued a total of 532,000 Real ID-compliant licenses and ID cards and 51,000 driver privilege and non-compliant ID cards, said Michael Smith, the operations director of the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Some people switched to driver privilege cards to show solidarity with farm workers, Smith said. Many more took out driver privilege cards when the state started issuing Real ID-compliant licenses.

Despite a state campaign to educate drivers about the new requirements for Real ID-compliant licenses, some drivers have arrived at a DMV office to renew their license without the documents they needed for Real ID, Smith said. Many of those people, when they found out they could get something that would allow them to drive regardless, simply said, “I don’t want to come back here; give me one of those,” Smith said.

Smith said he’s heard of no fraud problems with the driver privilege cards, “and the secretary of state is right next door to me.”

Likewise, there have been no complaints from law enforcement, he said.
Last November, the Vermont DMV was named co-defendant in a lawsuit filed by Migrant Justice, an advocacy group for immigrant farm workers, against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The suit claims DMV employees passed confidential information to ICE about applicants for driver privilege cards -- even after the DMV instituted a policy prohibiting workers from using DMV time and resources to enforce federal immigration laws. Smith said he couldn’t comment on the suit.

But he did say that Vermont has faced an influx of people trying to obtain driver privilege cards even though they really live in neighboring states.

“They’re looking for documents so they can drive,” he said. “When you’re the one island in the middle of the sea, everyone swims toward you.”

These numbers could changes if and when New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire update their own rules for issuing driver’s licenses.

“Having people come in and take the test are all good things,” Smith said. “It makes the roads safer.”