A participant in an April 2019 march in Riverhead to support the Green Light Bill. File photo: Maria Piedrabuena

The “Green Light NY” bill, which allows the commissioner of motor vehicles to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, was passed by the State Senate last night and quickly signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The senate passed the bill just after 8:30 p.m. by a vote of 33-29, after a debate lasting more than three hours. All Senate Republicans and all six Long Island Democrats voted against it. The measure passed the Assembly last week, also after a long and sometimes contentious debate.

The Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act authorizes the issuance of standard driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants who present proof of identification, pass a written test and a road test. The licenses will indicate that they are not valid for federal identification purposes and do not entitle the holder of the license to register to vote.

The law also requires the DMV to notify the license holder within three days of a request is made to access their personal file. It also requires a court order before the state can release a driver’s information to the federal government.

The law immediately reverses a 2001 executive order signed by Gov. George Pataki in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks that required driver’s license applicants to prove legal residency in the United States.

“By expanding access to driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. we are guaranteeing safer roads, stronger economies, increased revenue, and keeping families together,” the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Luis Sepulveda (D-Bronx) said in a statement last night.

Earlier in the day, Cuomo said he might veto the bill unless assured that individuals who apply for driver’s licenses or identification cards would not be unintentionally exposed to a federal government seeking to use the information for deportation. He asked the attorney general for an assessment. Attorney General Letita James said the bill was constitutional and her office would vigorously defend it if it is challenged. But she said she would not speculate on the federal government’s response.

Last night, the governor’s counsel Alphonso David announced Cuomo would sign the bill, having received assurances from the state attorney general that the bill had “safeguards” which allayed the governor’s concerns that the law might be “weaponized to be used against undocumented individuals.”

“Governor Cuomo has supported this policy for over a decade,” David said. “The key to this bill is not the political intent but the legal effect. We hope the attorney general’s assessment is correct for the safety of the thousands of undocumented individuals who are relying on her legal opinion.”

Cuomo signed the bill just before 10 p.m.

Division over the controversial bill has been sharp and partisan, with Republican lawmakers, including State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemblymember Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) staunchly opposed.

“I remain steadfast in my position that granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants is not good public policy, presents a clear threat to public safety and sends a wrong message to the law-abiding people I represent,” LaValle said in a statement last week.

Palumbo said the bill encourages illegal immigration.

First District Assemblymember Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) was one of dozens of co-sponsors in the Assembly.

“Our local economy depends on immigrants being economically self-sufficient,” Thiele said.

“In many parts of our state, public transportation simply isn’t widely available and driving is a necessary fact of life, from getting to work to going to the grocery store. This is especially true on Long Island and the East End,” Thiele said.

Thiele, citing a Fiscal Policy Institute report, said making licenses available to all drivers will make roads safer and reduce insurance premiums.

“These drivers are already on the roads – this measure makes sure that they’re insured when they get behind the wheel,” he said.

“Keeping New Yorkers safe always comes first,” Thiele said. “From protecting motorists on the road to helping police officers do their jobs, this legislation does just that. We can’t get sidetracked by fear, rumors or bigotry – we need to focus on the facts, and the facts tell us loud and clear that making sure everyone on the road has a driver’s license makes us all safer.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) weighed in on the new law last night via Twitter. “The NYS Legislature and Gov. Cuomo were absolutely wrong to create a new law this evening to give driver’s licenses to people illegally in our country. This decision is incredibly irresponsible,” he wrote in a tweet.

Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy, a Republican running for county executive, also weighed in, calling the measure a “terrible piece of legislation” and “a slap in the face to law-abiding citizens” in a statement issued last night.

Supporters of the bill included the Business Council of New York, the state’s largest business lobbying group, immigrant advocates, civil rights advocates and some law enforcement agencies.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia already have similar laws on the books.

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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.