A participant in the march to support the Green Light Bill last month in Riverhead. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

Undocumented immigrants should be given the opportunity to lawfully drive in New York.

Once again.

Because undocumented immigrants weren’t always denied the chance to obtain a New York driver’s license.

A post-Sept. 11 crackdown aimed at catching terrorists implemented stricter enforcement of an existing law requiring the DMV to collect Social Security numbers of all driver’s license applicants. (The 1995 law was aimed at catching people delinquent on child support payments.)

The 2004 enforcement crackdown resulted in the suspension of some 200,000 drivers’ licenses that had been issued to undocumented immigrants in New York.

Since then, the number of unlicensed operators, unregistered and uninsured vehicles on our roads and the number of hit-and-run accidents has increased.

There is no viable public transportation system in the suburban and rural areas of New York, including the East End. The bus line that serves the entire East End, making the trek around the forks from Orient to East Hampton, is woefully inadequate. The only other options are riding a bicycle, walking or taking a taxi.

Even if you don’t care about the toll this situation takes on human lives and scores of families in our communities, about parents who can’t take their children to doctor appointments or go to the grocery store, if your only concern is about your own checkbook, consider the ways in which the current situation costs you personally.

Whatever your opinions on undocumented immigrants, the cold reality is that the rest of us depend on them. Our economy depends on their labor, whether you like it or not.

Why would anyone prefer that residents who make up a large part of the regional labor force — a large part of our community — have no viable legal way to get to work, school or doctor appointment that is safe for all?

Allowing all residents to lawfully obtain a driver’s license will make our roads safer and reduce the number of unlicensed and uninsured drivers on our roads.

It will add an estimated $26 million in fees and taxes to state coffers, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.

It will help lower auto insurance premiums for all drivers.

And it will help clear the backlog in our already-overburdened local courts.

For instance:

Of the 395 cases on the criminal and traffic calendars in Riverhead Justice Court in a recent three-day period (March 25, 26 and 27) 156 cases, or 40 percent of the total, involved an unlicensed operation charge.

There is no way to tell from the court calendar how many of the drivers charged with unlicensed operation were undocumented immigrants.

Of those 156 cases, 99 — 64 percent — were defendants with Hispanic surnames. If it’s a valid assumption that Hispanics comprise the largest demographic of undocumented immigrants in our community, it’s likely that a significant proportion of those 99 cases involved undocumented immigrants. (Two-thirds of those 99 cases involved traffic stops for equipment violations, not criminal charges or moving violations; many involved no violations other than unlicensed operation.)

Remember, though, that we also have significant non-Latino immigrant populations in our community and some portion of those immigrant groups are also undocumented.

Processing these unlicensed operator charges through our court system is costly and consumes the time and resources of judges and courtrooms that could and should be better spent dispensing justice in more serious criminal cases.

The Green Light bill now pending in the state legislature, which would make people without Social Security numbers eligible to apply for N.Y. drivers’ licenses, is plain common sense and should be enacted into law.

Revoking that privilege in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks may have made sense at the time, but it has had many unintended and undesirable consequences. Serving little, if any, public policy purpose at this point, it does us all more harm than good.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.