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Forum Held on Changes to Driver’s Licenses and the Impact on Immigrants

Updated: May 1, 2022

By Hannah Selinger

Changes to New York State’s licensing for drivers — and the impact on immigrants — was the impetus for “Restoring Driver’s License Access to Immigrant Drivers and Important Changes to New York Driver’s Licenses,” held on Wednesday, April 24, at Wainscott’s LTV Studios.

Sponsored by Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, locally known as OLA in conjunction with Progressive East End Reformers, Neighbors in Suppport of Immigrants, Centro Corazón de María, and the North Fork Unity Action Committee, the hour-long discussion featured Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., East Hampton pediatrician Gail Schonfeld, Babette’s owner Barbara Layton, local resident Sandra González, and OLA executive director Minerva Perez. The audience included some notable town members as well: candidate for East Hampton Town Trustee Susan McGraw Keber, Town Board member David Lys, and candidate for the House of Representative’s first district of New York, Perry Gershon were all in attendance.

The discussion began with a power-point presentation, highlighting upcoming changes to the New York State license. In order to be compliant with REAL legislation, which was passed federally in 2005 in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, New York State will change its drivers license program by October of 2020. The new, three-tiered plan will include a standard license, REAL license, and enhanced license.

Standard licenses will permit cardholders to operate a motor vehicle, while the REAL and enhanced licenses will also permit cardholders to board a plane, and, in the case of the enhanced license, cross over the Mexican and Canadian borders without a passport by land or sea. Legislation S01747/A03675, currently awaiting a vote in the New York State Assembly, would establish that the standard license be accessible to all state residents who pass the required licensing tests, regardless of immigration status.

“The key word is restore,” Assemblyman Thiele, who is a co-sponsor of the proposed legislation, said, noting that, prior to 2002, New York State had no citizenship requirement for driver’s licenses. “If you were undocumented, you were able to get a driver’s license. After 9/11, the Governor — then Governor Pataki — issued an executive order to the DMV.” The considered legislation would still require all applicants to take and pass a comprehensive driver’s exam.

Panel members discussed, at length, the challenges facing undocumented community members who are prohibited from driving due to their immigration status. Dr. Gail Schonfeld, who has owned East End Pediatrics since 1982, discussed the health consequences of restricting driver’s licenses, noting that many of her patients now arrive late in the day, and that many are forced to take multiple bus rides that take hours in order to travel short distances for medical care. “If a family cannot provide for a child,” Dr. Schonfeld said, referring to transportation access, “the child will not do well.”

Sandra González, a 20-year resident of East Hampton, expounded upon risks to her vulnerable community. “They have to get to their jobs. They have to bring their children to medical appointments. They have to buy their groceries,” she said. “We have to take that chance [of driving without a license] with at least the risk of getting tickets.” Ms. González said that accumulating tickets were par for the course but that recent concerns were more serious, due to a change in the national tone of the immigration debate. Driving without a license could now lead to jail time, or worse.

Operating a motor vehicle, Barbara Layton added, “is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity.” She added that undocumented immigrants contribute more than $1 billion a year in taxes. “It’s just simple, smart, common sense legislation,” she said.

All of the panelists agreed that restoring driver’s license access to undocumented immigrants is also a matter of public safety. While moderator — and associate director of OLA — Sandra Dunn stated unequivocally that everyone should be able to drive lawfully, Ms. González also stressed the importance of personal responsibility. “We can be held accountable if something happens,” she said. “We are going to have safer roads. We are going to have [fewer] accidents.”

The panelists also discussed the economic implications of such a law. This legislation would generate billions in revenue for the state, and would also help small business owners who employ immigrants. Ultimately, the legislation will address the crisis of transportation in a community limited to vehicular travel. “People need to be able to get to work,” Assemblyman Thiele said, a refrain echoed by all of the panelists.

At the close of the paneled discussion, audience members were asked to compose questions on index cards, which were read by the moderator and answered by the panel. Some of those questions included concerns about whether or not federal agencies, like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would have access to the motor vehicle database, in essence giving them a list of undocumented New Yorkers. One provision of the proposed legislation, Assemblyman Thiele underscored, was the privacy element of it. Should the legislation pass, data pursuant to immigration status will not be available to any federal agencies.

“To me,” Assemblyman Thiele concluded at the close of the panel, “the merits of this are an individual’s right to be self-sufficient.” Ms. Layton had a more comprehensive takeaway. “Laws and regulations that are based on fear are absolutely not sustainable,” she said.

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