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Green light in NY for immigrants in U.S. illegally to get driver's licenses

Andrea Stewart-Cousins is the Majority Leader of the

Andrea Stewart-Cousins is the Majority Leader of the New York State Senate. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY — The State Senate approved legislation Monday night to make New York the 13th state to allow people in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses, despite opposition from a bloc of key Long Island Democrats.

The narrow vote, 33-29, came after a nearly four-hour debate that included accusations of xenophobia, “descending into demonization,” “endorsing lawlessness” and “watering down citizenship.” The harsh words followed Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’s decision to hold the vote without any Island support, knowing there were still enough Democrats to win passage. And they came after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo raised the possibility of a veto early in the day, but then signed it into law shortly before 10 p.m.

The bill takes effect immediately.

Democratic legislators supporting the bill said permitting undocumented immigrants to get licenses was the “right thing to do.” The law reverses a ban imposed after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Today, we passed legislation restoring the right for all qualified drivers to obtain driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status,” said Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers). “By passing this needed legislation, we are growing our economy while at the same time making our roads safer. This is the right step forward for New York State as we continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform on the federal level.”

All 22 Republicans voted against the bill. Some of them blamed Democratic senators from Long Island and upstate for allowing the measure to even get to the floor for a vote — a clear sign the GOP will use it in the 2020 elections.

“Today is the day you could have stood up to the majority and said ‘No way,' ” said Sen. Fred Akshar (R-Binghamton). “You promised the people of Long Island you would protect them. You promised the people upstate you would protect them. And you failed.”

All nine Long Island senators — six Democrats and three Republicans — voted against the legislation. Two Long Island Democrats who insiders thought might support the bill — Sens. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) and Anna Kaplan (D-North Hempstead) — voted “no” because of the “possible unintended consequence” of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency obtaining the driver’s info and using it for deportation purposes.

“States cannot really stop ICE from accessing the documents,” said Thomas, adding he came to that conclusion after researching the issue. “Given how Trump is going around rounding people up, I have a lot of anxiety” about enacting the legislation.

The Senate Democrats moved forward on the legislation despite a warning less than two weeks ago from state party chairman Jay Jacobs to slow down and not act on the issue this year, lest they lose control of the Senate in 2020 elections.

There was a particularly sharp exchange between lawmakers during the roughly three-hour debate. Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) asked some Republicans about their “oft-stated” embrace of Christianity.

“Where is ‘Love thy neighbor?’ Where is your humanity?” she asked.

At another point, Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-Elmira) took issue with Democrats’ terminology.

“You don’t want me to call them illegals? OK. I’ll call them criminals,” O’Mara said.

The state Assembly already passed the legislation, which has been a key goal of pro-immigration groups and a number of first-term Democrats who helped the party win control of the Senate in November.

In an unexpected last-minute twist, Cuomo raised the possibility of a veto Monday, citing the same issue as Thomas: ICE might use the driver’s licenses for deportation purposes.

Cuomo, a Democrat, had said he wanted the attorney general’s office to “assure us that the federal government will not be able to access the information or subpoena the information.”

Without that assurance, Cuomo said he would veto the bill.

Shortly after 7 p.m., Attorney General Letitia James responded: “The Office of Attorney General has concluded that it is constitutional. We will not opine on any actions the federal government may or may not take. … If this bill is enacted and challenged in court, we will vigorously defend it.”

About 90 minutes later, the governor’s office relented. Cuomo counsel Alphonso David issued a statement saying in part: “… based on the Attorney General’s representation, the Governor will sign the bill.”

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