ALBANY — If state lawmakers approve a measure that would allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for New York driver's licenses, Niagara County Clerk Joe Jastrzemski says his office won't process the applications.

"If any illegal alien comes to us for a driver's license, I'm going to send them to the state," said Jastrzemski, whose county motor vehicle office is more than 100 miles from the nearest state-run Division of Motor Vehicles office.

Nevertheless, while the proposal to let undocumented people get licenses is highly controversial, the measure has gained traction at the statehouse and is being embraced by a growing number of Democratic senators.

A vote could come as early as June.

"We are not in the New York of 2007," said Stephen Choi, director of the New York Immigration Coalition, recalling what had been the disastrous efforts of then Gov. Eliot Spitzer to make licenses available for people who were in the country illegally.

 

UNDER REVIEW

In the 63-member Senate, two dozen members are now co-sponsors of the legislation, said Yaritza Mendez, lead organizer for Make the Road NY, an advocacy group.

Among those who are not on that list, Sens. Jen Metzger (D-Rosendale) and Neil Breslin (D-Albany) have signaled that they are open to extending the eligibility for licenses, she said.

The issue has been a topical one for New York's county clerks.

Dozens of them run local motor vehicles offices, assisting the state with the issuance of licenses and registrations.

While the State Association of County Clerks has not staked out a public position on the legislation, the organization has set up a committee to review the bill, and discussion of it is planned for the next statewide meeting in early June, the association's president, Steuben County Clerk Judith Hunter, told CNHI.

 

'TOTALLY INSANE'

Clinton County Clerk John Zurlo and Otsego Clerk Kathy Sinnott-Gardner are among those who are strongly opposed to the measure.

"Anyone who is born here or who became a naturalized citizen has to jump through hoops to get a license, but now we are just going to hand them out to anyone?" said Sinnott-Gardner.

"Why aren't our politicians protecting us? This is totally insane."

Under the legislation, motor vehicles officials could accept foreign identification or a passport as documentation of a person's identity when processing a license application.

Choi noted that expanding the pool of people who qualify for licenses will enhance public safety by motivating more people to get their vehicles insured.

He said hit-and-run accidents in California dropped by nearly 10 percent after that state allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for licenses.

A similar result has been noted in other states that have opened up licenses to immigrants, he said.

 

'THIS IS THE YEAR'

Choi said polling for the legislation has found support grows where the survey question points out that the applicant isn't being "given" a license but has to qualify for it through driving tests.

Mendez said a key to getting the New York legislation passed is getting the backing of Senate Democrats from Long Island. Several of those seats were captured from Republicans in last year's election.

"For us, this is the year to make this happen," Mendez said. "We don't want to wait until 2020."

She noted many elected officials shy away from controversial issues in an election year, and all legislative seats will be up for grabs next year.

There are more than enough Assembly sponsors for the bill to give it clear sailing in that chamber.

But some upstate Democrats, such as Assemblyman Billy Jones of Chateaugay, say they are opposed to it.

"I haven't heard the need for this in my area or heard from people who have come out for it," he said.

 

SEN. LITTLE OPPOSED

Though one argument on behalf of the bill is that it would benefit farmworkers and others who need to drive to their places of employment, board members of the New York Farm Bureau have decided to remain neutral.

Advocates say letting undocumented immigrants get licenses and register cars will bring the state more revenue, with the Fiscal Policy Institute, a labor-backed think tank, estimating the state would reap an additional $26 million in fees.

Opponents warn that the state-issued licenses could be used by people in the country illegally in fraudulent schemes against banks an other businesses.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he expects to sign the bill should lawmakers approve it. Among those who have signaled opposition are Sens. Jim Seward (R-Milford), Rob Ortt, (R-Lockport) and Betty Little, (R-Queensbury).

 

Email Joe Mahoney: 

jmahoney@cnhi.com

 

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