Rebellion by County Clerks Over N.Y. Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants 2022

Updated: December 5, 2022

A backlash, reminiscent of the fight over marriage licenses for same-sex couples in other states, takes root in New York.


CreditCreditPatrick Dodson for The New York Times

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As he watched a live stream of a New York State Senate vote on Monday night, Michael P. Kearns, the county clerk in Erie County, sat in disbelief. For nearly two decades, efforts to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses had failed. What he was seeing felt impossible: The State Legislature was passing the bill.

“I was shocked,” said Mr. Kearns, who immediately took to Twitter to voice his dissent. “I knew I’d have to take stand against this.”

With that vote, New York became the 13th state to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, an issue that has been entangled in a politically divisive, decades-long debate in the state.

But the win for Democratic lawmakers and immigration advocates is already being challenged. A growing coalition of county clerks say they will refuse to issue licenses, and they are threatening to take their fight to court.

Only hours after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, signed the bill, Mr. Kearns sent a letter to the Erie County attorney, Michael Siragusa, saying he planned to fight the law in federal court.

They may be in a unique position to do so.

Unlike in most states, where the Department of Motor Vehicles is administered by state agents, in New York these duties frequently fall on county clerks, many of whom are elected in conservative areas of upstate New York.

The clerks said they believe the state’s new policy, known as the Green Light Law and that is scheduled to take effect in December, may conflict with federal immigration law, which prohibits employers from hiring immigrants they know are undocumented.

“You are asking me to give a government document to somebody who is in our country breaking federal law. That is 100 percent wrong,’’ said Joseph A. Jastrzemski, the Niagara County clerk. “It compromises my oath of office to defend the Constitution.”

The clerks also argue that the law’s implementation will strain their already overburdened motor vehicle offices and result in new costs, including hiring additional workers to handle the influx of applicants and training them to recognize the foreign paperwork required for an undocumented immigrant to obtain a license.

Motor vehicle offices, the clerks said, are dealing with an already increased demand for appointments from drivers looking to obtain licenses that are compliant with the Real ID Act. That federal law requires licenses to meet new standards by October 2020 in order for American citizens to use them to fly domestically.

“We are the busiest we have ever been; we are overwhelmed with customers coming in,” said Frank J. Merola, county clerk in Rensselaer County. The new law, he said, is “going to be a huge undertaking, actually an impossible undertaking” unless the state has the support of county clerks.

Read more about licenses for undocumented immigrants

Immigration advocates who fought for the bill’s passage argued that the revenue earned from offering the licenses would offset any costs associated with its initial rollout. The Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning research institute, estimated that the state would earn $57 million in annual revenue and $26 million in one-time revenue from driver’s licenses, new car purchases, registrations and sales and gas taxes.

County clerks receive a percentage of the fees paid for each transaction at their motor vehicle office, but it remains unclear whether the state will offer additional financing as the new law is rolled out.

A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo declined to comment on Friday.

More than 50 county clerks whose offices handle motor vehicle duties are planning a meeting on July 10 to discuss the issue, including possible litigation, Mr. Merola said.

Letitia James, the state attorney general, has said she would defend the law if it were challenged in court.

“The law is well crafted and contains ample protections for those who apply for driver’s licenses,” Ms. James said in a statement.

Immigration advocacy groups have also said they are organizing legal teams to defend undocumented immigrants who are refused licenses.

Steven Choi, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, compared New York county clerks who refuse to issue driver’s licenses to a county clerk in Kentucky, Kim Davis, who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples but ultimately lost in court.

“We always knew there would be continued opposition to this, but these county clerks don’t have anything to stand on when it comes to their litigation,” Mr. Choi said.

Jackie Vimo, a policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, a Washington-based group that defends low-income immigrants, said the backlash was indicative of New York’s unusual motor vehicle regulatory structure and the political divide between more liberal downstate communities and more conservative areas upstate.

Even after Democrats seized complete control of the legislature last year, more moderate Democrats were concerned about the political fallout from the bill, which passed with just one more vote than the minimum needed.

“You have a state that looks blue on the surface but ultimately geographically is quite red,” Ms. Vimo said.

The issue of immigrants obtaining driver’s licenses has been a flash point in New York state since 2007, when former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, issued an executive order allowing undocumented immigrants to receive licenses.

Mr. Spitzer faced fierce opposition from county clerks as well as conservative and liberal lawmakers across the country, including Kirsten Gillibrand, who was a United States representative from New York, and Hillary Clinton, who was a Senator representing New York.

Mr. Spitzer rescinded the order two months later.

The passage of the Green Light Law has propelled New York into the national spotlight on immigration and could help spur other states to pass similar legislation.

State legislators in Oregon and New Jersey are considering similar proposals, and campaigns pushing for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants have also begun in six other states.

“We are seeing momentum growing right now, especially following New York where it has been such a long and hard fought struggle,” Ms. Vimo said. “This really changes political calculations and removes a lot of the excuses other states had not to pass similar legislation.”

Christina Goldbaum is a Metro reporter covering immigration. Before joining The Times in 2018, she was a freelance foreign correspondent in East Africa and reported on terrorism and the U.S. military from Mogadishu, Somalia. @cegoldbaum

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