Judge tosses challenge to licenses for undocumented immigrants


ALBANY — New York's new law allowing undocumented immigrants to qualify for driver's licenses remained intact Friday after a federal judge tossed out a lawsuit brought by Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns, one of numerous officials fighting its implementation.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Wolford contended in her ruling that Kearns, a Democrat, lacked legal standing to bring the lawsuit.

Kearns issued a tart response, vowing to appeal. "If a county clerk can't bring this lawsuit, then who the hell can?" Kearns asked.

Niagara County Clerk Joe Jastrzemski and Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola have each filed separate lawsuits challenging the statute advocates call the Green Light law.

Supporters contend it will enhance public safety by expanding the pool of motorists who drive legally with a license and offers humanitarian support for individuals who need to drive to work to support their families.

Jastrzemski, a Republican, told CNHI he believes the law will put clerks in the position of having to validate questionable identification documents from foreign countries to process license applications.

"I'm very disheartened and disturbed by this ruling," Jastrzemski said. "It says right in this law that we are not supposed to forward any information to law enforcement or immigration (authorities)" when a person suspected of being in the country illegally applies for a license.

In many upstate counties, clerks act on behalf of the state in administering the process of licenses and motor vehicle registrations.

Steven Choi, director of the New York Immigration Coalition and one of the organizers behind the Green Light campaign, called Kearns' lawsuit a "useless political stunt."

Choi, noting New York is now the 13th state to allow undocumented immigrants to get licenses, called the statute "clearly constitutional."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who supports the law, had initially questioned whether the legislation would survive judicial scrutiny. Cuomo's Department of Motor Vehicles controls the regulations that will accompany the new law, which takes effect Dec. 14.

Jastrzemski said he and his fellow clerks have yet to receive any guidance from the state on what is expected from their offices.

The legal defense for the law was provided by state Attorney General Letitia James, also a Democrat.

James hailed the ruling, saying: "The law aims to make our roads safer, our economy stronger, and allows immigrants to come out of the shadows to sign up as legal drivers in our state."

Kearns, who ran for county clerk on the GOP line though he is a Democrat, said he is considering urging U.S. Attorney General William Barr to review the legal controversy in New York. Kearns also remained adamant in stating his office will refuse to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Jastrzemski said he and other clerks opposed to the Green Light requirements are steeled for the possibility that Cuomo will seek to remove them from office if they refuse to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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