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Undocumented Immigrants in New York Will Finally Be Able to Legally Apply and Obtain Driver Licences

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After a rocky road filled with lawsuits, the Green Light Law, which expands access to driver’s licenses to an estimated 265,000 undocumented New Yorkers, is finally out of the woods. 

The undocumented community of New York celebrated on Friday, the decision of a federal judge who dismissed a lawsuit that tried to prevent the implementation of a law passed earlier this year that gives them the right to obtain driver’s licenses in the state.

“This is life-changing, and we are proud to stand on the right side of history because every New Yorker should have the opportunity to contribute to their economies and communities without fearing that they will be separated from their family because of a routine traffic stop,” Eddie A. Taveras, state immigration manager for the advocacy group FWD.us, said in a statement about the passing of the law last June. 

The bill, which passed 31-29 in the Senate and was backed by immigrant rights groups and some prominent Democrats alike, faced opposition from both parties. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who later signed the law, was initially worried that the measure might negatively impact undocumented immigrants by unintentionally exposing them to a Federal government seeking to use their information for deportation.

“We have to write a law that does not have an unintended consequences,” Cuomo said in an interview with WAMC radio before the bill passed.
Cuomo asked the Solicitor General to review the bill in order to make sure that there were safeguards in place to prevent the deportation of undocumented immigrants who seek to obtain a driver’s license. After making sure that it could not be weaponized to be used against undocumented individuals, Cuomo announced he would sign the bill. 

“Governor Cuomo has supported this policy for over a decade,” said Alphonso David, counsel to the governor. “The key to this bill is not the political intent but the legal effect. We hope the Attorney General’s assessment is correct for the safety of the thousands of undocumented individuals who are relying on her legal opinion.” 

After the law was signed, officials in Erie, Rensselaer, Niagara, and Allegany counties publicly opposed to delivering driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants as established by law, and proceeded to place lawsuits against the law and Cuomo himself.

“In the memo of the bill, they talk about the reason why they’re passing this bill is to make sure that people who are here illegally can get to and from work,” Erie County Clerk, Michael Kern, told the New York Post back in June. “It is illegal to hire people in the state of New York or anywhere that are here illegally. There’s an inconsistency there.”

However, this Friday, Judge Elizabeth Wolford of the federal court in the city of Rochester, indicated in her 32-page decision that Kearns has no legal capacity to sue because he did not prove that he has been harmed by law, a constitutional requirement.

“It is apparent plaintiff disagrees with the Green Light Law,” Wolford wrote. “But the mere disagreement with a duly-enacted state statute does not entitle anyone—even an elected official—to seek intervention from a federal court.”

With this decision, the law will take effect, as planned, on December 14 and New York will be able to continue with its plans to begin accepting applications to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, as twelve other states already do.

Alexandra Tirado Oropeza is a Venezuelan journalist covering politics, immigration, entertainment and social justice. She moved to the U.S. in 2014 to pursue a Writing degree at The University of Tampa, and after graduating, she moved to Los Angeles where she works in broadcast and as a freelance writer. She’s passionate about equality, freedom of speech, art and dogs.