What would you do if public transportation was not an option, and state law prohibited you from getting a driver’s license so that you could lawfully drive to get around? Those were the circumstances for hundreds of thousands of New York residents prior to December 2019, when the Green Light Law was implemented. Now, because the federal government is upset that this law extends protections to New York’s undocumented residents, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is banning all New Yorkers from enrolling or renewing their enrollment in trusted traveler programs, which vet applicants so they can move through airport security more quickly.
Driving is so crucial, so unavoidable, for so many that exclusion from access to a driver’s license does not mean less people driving—it results in more unlicensed and uninsured drivers. That leads to more dangerous roads.
Because driving is such a critical part of securing livelihood—given its crucial role in being able to get to your job, your children’s school, the hospital, or the grocery store, amongst other important places—it is not something from which states should exclude large swaths of its population. Driving is so crucial, so unavoidable, for so many that exclusion from access to a driver’s license does not mean less people driving—it results in more unlicensed and uninsured drivers. That leads to more dangerous roads.
What Is the Green Light Law?
New York legislators took an important step towards enhancing the public safety of its roads and integrating its immigrant community by implementing the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, more commonly referred to as the Green Light Law. This law effectively allows all New York residents who follow the specified process access to applying for a standard driver’s license, including its undocumented residents. Before this law’s enactment, people had to provide proof of a social security number to even have access to applying.
The passage and implementation of the Green Light Law meets critical community needs within New York while generating opportunity. It is the result of years of collective efforts from an extensive coalition of advocacy organizations and state lawmakers dedicated to ensuring more equitable access and protections for undocumented individuals, and, by extension, for their families. In seeking to proactively address and counter fears that the information of undocumented immigrants could be used to facilitate their deportation, the Green Light Law also offers clear protection for immigrants of their information. It establishes that records held by the New York Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) used to apply for a driver’s license are not a public record and cannot be disclosed except under special circumstances, including a judge’s subpoena or to comply with the National Driver Register. The law also outlines that the commissioner of the DMV is not to disclose information to any agency primarily enforcing immigration law unless the commissioner is seeking to issue or renew a driver’s license or learner’s permit that meets federal standards. New York legislators, including New York Senator Luis Sepulveda (D-32), the bill’s sponsor, and New York Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-35), exercised true leadership in listening to the needs of their community and effectively responding. We need more of that, not the attacks we’re seeing from the federal government.
The Federal Government Retaliates
The current federal administration is now punishing New Yorkers—every one of them—for legislation that New York State leaders had a right to pass. The DHS has banned all New Yorkers from enrolling or renewing their enrollment in some trusted traveler programs, including Global Entry, NEXUS, FAST, and SENTRY. They did this under the guise of protecting national security and public safety, blaming the Green Light Law. This is all in seeking to further advance the harmful narrative of the immigrant community as criminals. There is no reason that the Green Light Law should intersect with or interrupt an individual’s eligibility to trusted traveler programs. The DHS is making a deliberate and politicized decision to attack New Yorkers for valuing and including its immigrant community.
The DHS is making a deliberate and politicized decision to attack New Yorkers for valuing and including its immigrant community.
The standard driver’s license to which undocumented immigrants have access, and to which some New York citizens are choosing to apply for privacy purposes, explicitly notes that it does not meet federal standards. Further, to apply to trusted traveler programs, applicants generally have to present REAL ID compliant forms of identification, all of which require proof of identity and lawful immigration status. For Global Entry specifically, applicants must be U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. This requirement also applies to TSA Pre-Check, but that program was interestingly not impacted. The Green Light Law never intended, or pretended, to establish a standard driver’s license as providing proof of citizenship or legal residency—the DMV has their REAL ID and Enhanced License for that.
New York is joined by twelve states and the District of Columbia in extending driver’s licenses to their undocumented residents, with two others planning to implement their own expansions of driver’s licenses in January 2021. These states have stood up to strengthen their communities by better integrating their immigrant population. They are countering the negative wave of attacks from the federal government against immigrant communities, including a rescindment of DACA, public charge changes, the expansion of travel bans for people from Muslim and African countries, the zero-tolerance family separation policies, migrant protection protocol, and more.
United against Hate
News of the ban came the night after the 2020 State of the Union Address attacked sanctuary policies, falsely inferring that these policies contribute to an increase in violent crime. However, studies have shown that counties with sanctuary policies actually have significantly lower rates of crime than counties where sanctuary policies are nonexistent. We should be furious and outraged—not at New York, but at the current federal administration’s xenophobic agenda, and the way it is being used to try to pit us against advancing necessary policy to improve safety, access, and opportunity for our entire community.