Undocumented New Yorkers are inching closer to getting their right to driver’s licenses restored — but they must get past a roadblock of skeptical upstate and Long Island lawmakers to zoom ahead.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie intends to move the Green Light NY bill for what is expected to be easy passage next week, according to people familiar with the chamber’s plan. That will put the onus on the state Senate to act before the 2019 legislative session ends later this month.
But despite having a solidly Democratic majority for the first time in decades, the Senate still lacks enough support to pass the bill, according to legislative sources.
Holdouts persist even after recent tweaks by Senate sponsor Luis Sepulveda (D-Bronx) and Assembly sponsor Marcus Crespo (D-Bronx) to standardize documentation and quell concerns about license-holder privacy.
Meanwhile, the bill has the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said at an Albany news conference that it’s on his list of his end-of-session priorities. The measure would undo a 2001 executive order by-then Gov. George Pataki requiring proof of immigration status with driver’s license applications.
A spokesperson for Senate Democrats said the conference is “still discussing” the measure.
Those deliberations carry high stakes for an estimated 200,000 immigrant New Yorkers navigating life without access to state-issued identification. For them, standard interactions with law enforcement can lay the groundwork for deportation.
Life Turned Upside-Down
When Mario Rivera Caceres saw police lights flashing behind him last August, he didn’t worry much about the cops pulling him over in the red work truck bearing the name of the landscaping company where he’d worked for 17 years. He had been stopped and ticketed before.
But the 51-year-old, who fled Honduras for The Bronx in 2001 and tends the suburban lawns in Westchester, did not have a U.S. driver’s license. He showed officers an international driver’s license from his native Honduras and his IDNYC identification card.
The police called Immigration and Customs Enforcement from the side of the road. They then ordered Rivera Caceres out of the truck and handcuffed him, despite one officer’s insistence he should be given a ticket and let go, Rivera Caceres told THE CITY in a recent interview.
Rivera Caceres called his wife of 31 years from the police station house. He was then transported to federal immigration offices, and after that the Hudson County jail, where he would be locked up for the next eight months.
“The drinking water is bad water. The food is poor and it’s a terrible amount of suffering you go through at this place,” Rivera Caceres said.
Advocacy group Make the Road New York, which represents Rivera Caceres in immigration court, said it regularly works with people in similar situations.
“Mario’s case is a clear example of a statewide trend: immigrant New Yorkers who face being separated from their families because they lack access to a driver’s license,” said Javier Valdés, the group’s co-executive director. “Addressing this issue is a dire need for immigrant communities.”
Rivera Caceres is now back home with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters at their shared apartment in Fordham, out on bond while he fights a deportation order.
Working Toward a Compromise
In the Senate, the biggest pocket of holdouts among Democrats is on Long Island, where four out of six Democrats ousted Republicans last year to win their seats and concerns about immigration flare high. Polled by THE CITY last month, just one said he was even considering voting for the Green Light NY bill.
Opposition to the driver’s license bill, meanwhile, remains widespread among the local administrators who would have to enforce the law. The New York State Association of County Clerks, whose members oversee Department of Motor Vehicles offices in most counties, say they’re not equipped to verify foreign documents and would require additional staff to act as translators.
“As proposed this legislation does not provide a solution for these system implementation
concerns and does not provide increased funding for counties to address these issues,” NYSACC president Judith Hunter said in a statement. “Without these issues being addressed, processing the licenses at a local level will be difficult, perhaps impossible.”
Yet the proposal’s support is not limited to progressives. The New York State Business Council, historically aligned with Albany Republicans, came out in favor of the bill last week, calling it the “right and decent thing to do.”
Phillip Walzak, an NYPD spokesperson, said in a statement: “The NYPD is working with bill sponsors and advocates regarding legislation to allow driver’s licenses for all.”
From his home in The Bronx, Rivera Caceres was rooting for the bill’s passage as he fights to stay in the U.S. for good.
“To be with my family again, it feels like a dream to me to be back in my home,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d be with my family again, but I thank God that He gave me the opportunity.”
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