bumpy road

Mixed Signals on Guarding Undocumented Driver’s License Info

Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The legislator behind a law allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses offered privacy reassurances Monday amid reports U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is mining pictures and personal information in other states.

But a top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has questioned the so-called Green Light bill he signed into law last month, appeared to cast doubts on whether sensitive information will be safe.

Melissa DeRosa tweeted “well well well,” with a link to a New York Times story on the issue.

The Cuomo administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment about DeRosa’s tweet. She holds the highest unelected position in state government as secretary to the governor.

State Sen. Luis Sepulveda (D-Bronx), the sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, noted the new state law forbids ICE officials from accessing Department of Motor Vehicle records without a judicial warrant, a subpoena or court order.

“I just think that if their intent is to stoke fear, then their intent is misplaced,” Sepulveda said of DeRosa’s tweet. “It’s inaccurate and I challenge anyone to show me anything other than what the bill says, which is no sharing of photos unless for criminal purposes.”

Shontell Smith, the top lawyer and chief of staff for Democrats who control the state Senate, rebuffed DeRosa’s message with a tweet of her own: “Well, well, well good thing we addressed those concerns in the bill #themoreyouknow”

Facial Recognition Software Used

The mixed signals over the law came as The Washington Post reported Sunday Federal Bureau of Investigation and ICE officials have used facial recognition software on driver’s license databases. Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that ICE officials have requested access to license photos in at least three states that allow undocumented individuals to apply for driver’s licenses.

Cuomo signed New York’s bill into law in mid-June — but only after some last-minute drama, in which he cast doubt on whether the measure would safeguard undocumented individuals’ personal information from the Trump administration.

Under the new law, If ICE requests records or information on an applicant — regardless of immigration status — the individual is alerted within three days, noted Anu Joshi of the New York Immigration Coalition.

A car drives up Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, on April 6, 2019. The neighborhood is home to a large immigrant population.
A car drives up Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, on April 6, 2019. The neighborhood is home to a large immigrant population. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Attorney General Letitia James’ office confirmed that no individual’s personal information or photo could be handed over to ICE without a warrant under the Green Light law, which goes into effect in late November.

Asked whether federal agencies can tap New York Department of Motor Vehicle records, Lisa Koumjian, an agency spokesperson, said: “The DMV does not permit any local, state or federal police department or government agency, including ICE, to access its photo database for facial recognition purposes.”

FBI requests to access the New York DMV’s “entire photo database for facial recognition purposes” have been denied, and there are no ongoing negotiations between the state and the FBI on the issue, Koumjian told THE CITY.

“We wrote the strongest bill in the entire country when it comes to protecting information from ICE,” said Steven Choi, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “The kind of facial recognition, the mass scanning and sweeps using facial recognition technology detailed in those articles cannot happen in New York State. Period. Full stop.”

Legal Fight Brewing

Meanwhile, an upstate county clerk plans to file a federal lawsuit Tuesday challenging the new driver’s license law.

Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns said in a news release that he would sue the governor, the attorney general and DMV Commissioner Mark Schroeder.

“The law compels county clerks across the state to be an instrument to violate federal law,” the release says. “The federal lawsuit seeks a declaration as the law’s constitutionality and will also be seeking an injunction to prevent the law from going into effect prior to a final decision from the courts.”

Kearns, a registered Democrat, has said he wouldn’t process driver’s license applications for undocumented immigrants. Several other upstate clerks also have vowed to flout the law.

The attorney general, who last month departed from the governor in fully endorsing the Green Light law, stands by the measure.

“The Green Light law is well crafted and the Office of Attorney General has concluded that it is constitutional. As the state’s attorney and chief law enforcement officer, my office will vigorously defend it,” James said in a statement.

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