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States hit for denying access to driver’s license data

New York, Trump administration clash over DMV records, and more states could be next

New Yorkers have been denied access to screening programs such as TSA PreCheck at LaGuardia Airport.
New Yorkers have been denied access to screening programs such as TSA PreCheck at LaGuardia Airport. (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images file photo)

Just hours after President Donald Trump slammed New York’s sanctuary policies in his State of the Union speech, his administration clamped down on the state over another immigrant-friendly law.

New York’s newly enacted “Green Light” law allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, while also blocking federal officials from access to the state’s motor vehicle records.

The inability for federal examination is what made the law “dangerous,” according to Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. During a news conference the morning after Trump’s State of the Union last month, Cuccinelli announced that the administration was cutting off additional New Yorkers from enrolling in any of the DHS “trusted traveler” programs, such as Global Entry and TSA PreCheck, which expedite the security process for certain travelers.

While New York officials described the action as punitive, Cuccinelli argued it was simply a matter of public safety. He then cautioned other states “looking at laws like this.”

“We would urge them to reconsider,” he told reporters. “But at least know that if you go down that path, you are cutting your citizens off from a variety of privileges that currently exist and are available to those citizens.”

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New York is one of 15 states, along with Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, where laws allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. The others are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington.

Most of those states are considered Democratic strongholds, but there are exceptions. Utah, for instance, passed its bill in 2005 under Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman, but the influence that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds on the state has historically swayed its attitude toward refugees and immigrants.

Some states have had the law on the books for decades. Washington state was the first — allowing any resident, regardless of immigration status, to apply for a driver’s license, starting in 1993.

Proponents argue that states began taking these steps after years of inability by Congress to pass measures addressing the millions of individuals living unlawfully in the U.S. or providing them with a pathway to citizenship.

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Trump made immigration enforcement a cornerstone of his presidential election in 2016. And as he suggested in his State of the Union address, he will continue to make it a central theme of his reelection campaign.

Safety reasons

But while the administration says driver’s license laws like New York’s put national security at risk, immigrant advocates argue that states actually are keeping public safety in mind with such legislation.

For one thing, the licenses seem to result in safer, more responsible driving by undocumented immigrants. One study released in 2017 looked at the impact of California’s driver’s license law after its implementation in 2015 and found a 7 percent to 10 percent drop in hit-and-run accident rates from 2014.

“Our results suggest that, if anything, providing unauthorized immigrants access to driver’s licenses reduced their incentives to flee the scene of an accident,” read the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It also encouraged such drivers to seek medical help more quickly, the report said.

Other studies have found that having a license encourages crime victims to cooperate with law enforcement officers and can dramatically decrease the rate of uninsured vehicles, helping to reduce insurance premiums statewide.

Christy Williams, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Legal Immigration Network’s State and Local Immigration Project, says many state and local governments view driver’s license legislation as one of the few ways to better protect their communities, particularly their most vulnerable residents.

“What we’re talking about here really is states’ rights to decide what policies they should be adopting to promote their own state’s interest,” she said.

Communities adopting these policies are saying to their residents that they will not use local tax dollars to advance “this administration’s anti-immigrant agenda,” she said.

Other experts say such legislation improves the psychological well-being of the U.S.-born children of undocumented parents because it improves the chances their families will remain together.

“If undocumented parents can get a driver’s license, then those U.S. citizen children will not have to fear the police the way they do now, and that’s super important,” said Robert Smith, a sociology and immigration studies professor at City University of New York’s Baruch College who has written extensively about New York’s Green Light law. “That kind of constant toxic stress harms children and it also harms their ability to do well in school.”

Expanding map

Despite the administration’s interior enforcement crackdown on New York and elsewhere in the country, Williams believes that additional states will continue to adopt bills allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses and that many of those laws will have specific caveats against sharing license data with federal immigration officers.

New Jersey, which also passed a driver’s license law in 2019, prohibits its motor vehicle commission from disclosing information to any federal, state or local law enforcement agency for immigration purposes without the consent of the individual, a warrant, a court order or a subpoena.

In Virginia, lawmakers have crafted a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain “driving privilege” cards, which would require applicants to provide more documentation than a regular license. That bill also includes provisions that would prohibit federal immigration officials from accessing Virginia’s motor vehicle data, but they wouldn’t be as restrictive as the provisions in the New York law.

Matthew Albence, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, called it “dangerous” to prohibit his agency and Customs and Border Protection from accessing data from undocumented immigrants’ driver’s licenses. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images file photo)

Luis A. Aguilar, Virginia director of the immigrant advocacy group CASA, said momentum to pass this kind of bill has been building in the state for several years and gives undocumented immigrants “a sense of hope.”

“Society understands that it’s also our job to protect those communities. And I think access to driver’s licenses is one way to do that,” he said.

DHS said it does not have a problem with states granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, but it takes issue with states prohibiting federal immigration officials from tapping state records.

Like Cuccinelli, Matthew Albence, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, called it “dangerous” to prohibit his agency and Customs and Border Protection from accessing such data.

“This information might be the difference between life or death, not only for our officers but for the communities we are sworn to protect,” he told reporters during a recent news conference.

Aguilar doubts such warnings will be enough to stop future states from taking action, particularly in areas that he says have been regularly targeted by the Trump administration.

“It’s so important when a community is used to being a scapegoat,” he said. “Any light, any symbol or any little hope, is incredibly attractive, especially now in the darkest times.”

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