NY Activists Celebrate Law That Grants Driver’s Licenses to Undocumented Immigrants

Jun 19, 2019
10:29 AM

On June 11, NY Green Light supporters demonstrate outside of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. (Photo via GreenLightNYDT/CREDIT)

Immigrant rights activists are celebrating this week after New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law on Monday the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act (Green Light NY), a bill that permits undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

“This new law will allow about 265,000 undocumented immigrants across the state to go through the process and examination required by the state,” said Eddie Taveras, the New York State Immigration Manager at FWD.us, through a written statement to Latino Rebels.

Taveras assures that this new law improves family safety and will act as a buffer to the “deportation pipeline this [Trump] Administration has made into a priority.” He and other advocates agree that with a state-issued license, undocumented immigrants are at less risk of getting deported.

Advocates have been fighting for almost 20 years, after an executive decision by then governor George E. Pataki in 2001 impeded undocumented individuals from getting drivers licenses. The New York Times reported that Pataki’s decision came after the attacks on September 11.

“We are very happy that all the work and all the struggle that we have done for years, not just in these last three years, but since we were taken away the right to have licenses back in 2001,” Fabiola Ortiz Valdes, from the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), told Latino Rebels.

A similar initiative was brought up in 2007 by Governor Eliot Spitzer but was later shut down because of the severe resistance he faced.

“We knew it needed to be a law, not an executive order, because a law is the safest thing. We took great pains to make it a law to that would protect undocumented people, to know that their information was protected,” said Ortiz Valdes.

The bill was championed by Green Light NY, a coalition made up organizations all throughout the state that sought to bring state issues licenses to all residents regardless of status.

“Driving for our undocumented friends, family, and neighbors will no longer mean being forced to make the terrible choice of driving without a license, or not being able to get to work or take their children to the doctor. No parent should fear that they will be separated from their family because of a routine traffic stop,” Taveras said.

The bill passed the New York state senate on Monday with a narrow margin of 33-29, and there was much resistance from Republican senators and suburban constituents who believe allowing licenses would lead people to vote illegally. There seemed to be reluctance from Cuomo, who at one point asked the State Solicitor General, Barbara Underwood, to review the bill, and if any discrepancies were found, he would veto, but she refused and Cuomo signed it into law.

After Cuomo’s signature, advocates, politicians, and beneficiaries lit up social media posting videos of people crying and celebrating the victory.

Since the 2001 ban, immigrant rights advocates have argued that revoking driver’s license rights is a form of alienating immigrants from the rest of the community, especially those who live upstate.

Activist and DREAMer Monica Sibri told Latino Rebels that the circumstances of undocumented people in the city and undocumented people in the rest of the state are very different.

“In the city, I have the privilege to take the train or a bus, but upstate you can’t rely on public transportation,” Sibri said.

“Upstate, we have a lot of people who work in agriculture, and they are people who are very isolated. We have had cases where someone has been detained and they don’t have licenses and it raises a red flag,” said Ortiz Valdes, who is originally from Mexico, and now lives in Syracuse organizing for NYIC.

Both Ortiz Valdes and Sibri agree that granting the right to obtain licenses gives undocumented people mobility and the ability to continue contributing to the community

Sibri has been advocating in favor of this issue since her father received a ticket and she witnessed the fear of what could happen when her parents went to pay the ticket.

“I saw fear in my parent’s eyes. We were worried he might get deported,” said Sibri, who was born in Ecuador and moved to the U.S. when she was teenager.

Now, she is one of the almost 300,000 undocumented immigrants in the state who will benefit from the new law.

New York is now the 13th state that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. The law will go into effect in 180 days.


Natalia Rodríguez Medina is the 2019 summer correspondent for Latino Rebels. She is a member the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY’s Class of 2019. Natalia tweets from @nataliarodmed