State, sheriffs spar over sharing immigrant DMV data with feds

Devlin 

ALBANY — As state officials blocked dozens of police agencies from state motor vehicle records in a showdown over immigration policy, upstate sheriffs predicted the restrictions will jeopardize public safety.

The state has decided the only way that New York police agencies can continue to stay in the loop on motor vehicle records is to certify the data not be shared with federal immigration enforcement agencies.

But Clinton County Sheriff David Favro said partnerships with federal law enforcement are vital in an age of terrorism and cross-border smuggling. He noted his deputies patrol a region with four public schools within a mile of the international border with Canada.

"This is really taking away a lot of the discretion ability from law enforcement agencies to use our judgment and common sense," Favro said.

In recent days, the state Department of Motor Vehicles and the Division of Criminal Justice Service (DCJS), advised police agencies throughout the state that they had to pledge they would not relay information from the motor vehicle database to several federal agencies.

The agreements advanced by the Cuomo administration — first revealed to the public by CNHI — reflected objectives stitched into New York's controversial Green Light Law that, as of last month, allows undocumented immigrants to qualify for driver's licenses and non-driver state identification cards.

Critics of the law say they are worried the licenses will enable voter fraud and facilitate criminal activity, while advocates for the new system say it brings fairness to immigrants who entered this country to escape economic deprivation and make a better life for their families.

Janine Kava, spokeswoman for DCJS, said the number of police agencies the state is blocking from access to the DMV Photo system dropped to 59 Tuesday, down from 78 Monday evening.

After CNHI requested a listing of the police departments being impacted by the decision to suspend their access, Kava said the state is not issuing the list. She contended that information is subject to Freedom of Information law, calling the number of police agencies cut off from the data "a moving target."

In explaining the state's decision to block access to the 59 agencies, Kava said in an email: "Under the Green Light Law, no DMV data of any kind can be shared with an agency that primarily enforces immigration law, which means ICE, Customs and Border Protection and Citizenship and Immigration Services."

She said those federal agencies can't get access to the data unless they present a judicial order, subpoena or judicial warrant.

"The updated agreements are meant to further ensure that other agencies with access to DMV Photo do not disclose that information to ICE, Customs & Border Protection and Citizenship and Immigration Services as stipulated in the law," she said. "Agencies that do have access to DMV Photo have no way of knowing if a person is undocumented or not."

Reached in Cooperstown, Otsego County Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr. likened the state's arm-twisting to get police executives to sign the DMV agreement to "blackmail." He called attention to the severe consequences flowing from being denied access to license and motor vehicle registration data.

"Law enforcement should be able to share information between agencies — whether it's state, local or federal — because we have had these failures in the past in trying to stop domestic terrorism," Devlin said.

"I signed the agreement with displeasure because it would really affect our officers here if we were not to have access to this data," the sheriff added.

Devlin noted that the Green Light law is one of several which raised concerns among police executives, noting that the state's move to end cash bail for many offenses and new evidence rules are likely to stress the resources of law enforcement as well.

"They need to put more thought into these things," he said.

The Green Light legislation was unusual in that it passed both houses of the Legislature after a Siena College poll found most New Yorkers objected to letting undocumented immigrants get licenses.

A similar proposal was advanced in 2008 by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, only to be withdrawn after numerous upstate and suburban lawmakers voiced strong opposition.

The Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization, estimates New York has 940,000 residents who are 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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