ALBANY — State officials have blocked 78 police agencies from access to computerized motor vehicle data because they have yet to certify they will refrain from sharing the information with federal immigration enforcers.
A spokeswoman for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, Janine Kava, in response to inquires from CNHI, confirmed that New York police agencies were given a deadline ending Saturday, Jan. 11, to sign a document known as a DMV Photo System agreement.
As of Monda, Jan. 13, Kava said, 446 police agencies executed the agreement, at the state's request. She said she did not immediately have access to the list of departments being kept off the DMV data system.
Of the ones that have access suspended, "If any of those agencies opt to sign the new agreement, DMV will restore access," Kava told CNHI.
Being blocked from accessing the motor vehicle records could significantly hamper a police agency's ability to conduct traffic enforcement and pursue criminal investigations.
The push to get police to certify they will comply with the rules was initiated last month just as the state Department of Motor Vehicles began to process applications for state driver's licenses from undocumented immigrants.
Thousands of licenses have been issued in recent weeks as a result of the controversial Green Light law enacted in 2019.
Advocates contend it will yield public safety benefits by allowing undocumented immigrants to register and insure their cars, while helping them to work and support families. Critics argue the New York law contradicts federal immigration statutes and hampers the ability of local and federal law enforcement to work in cooperation to investigate crime.
Peter Kehoe, the executive director of the New York State Sheriff's Association, said several county sheriffs departments may be among the agencies that have not yet returned signed agreements to the state.
"I have the feeling it was just not coming to the attention of the right person" in those agencies, rather than it being a matter of deliberately balking at what is for many police agencies an unpopular policy, he said.
As for the overall views of the sheriffs, Kehoe said, "Many of them disagree with the Green Light law; but a few agree with the philosophy that it might make the roads safer. With the ones who think it's the wrong thing to do, most would not take the chance of not having their officers in the field not have access to the DMV data. Most of them are going to go along with it, even though they think the whole concept (of the Green Light legislation) is wrong."
Khaalid Walls, spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said his agency is assessing "the operational impact of the Green Light Law."
ICE, Walls said, "is concerned about any state or local laws limiting the sharing and exchanging of critical information which will undoubtedly impact ICE's mission as a public safety agency."
The document sent to police agencies, a copy of which was acquired by CNHI, notes that the DMV Photo System is maintained by DCJS and DMV. Both agencies are headed by commissioners appointed by Gov. Andew Cuomo, who championed the passage of the new law.
The document states that users of the system "shall not use DMV records or information for civil immigration purposes or disclose such records or information to any agency that primarily enforces immigration law, such as U.S. immigration and customs enforcement and U.S. customs and border protection or to any employee or any agent of such agency unless such disclosure is pursuant to a cooperative arrangement..."
When Cuomo signed the law, New York joined a dozen other states letting undocumented immigrants get licenses. But critics of the New York statute say it places more restrictions on police sharing of data than what law enforcement has encountered in the other states.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that backs immigration enforcement, said the New York law harms the ability of border patrol officers and ICE agents to catch drug traffickers, child pornographer and other dangerous criminals, a problem that extends far beyond New York's own borders.
Vaughan also said the New York state agencies pressuring police executives to sign the DMV access agreement is a sign that "the state government knows full well that most of the local law enforcement agencies in New York do not support this stiff-arming of motor vehicle information and it's a sign that the state does not trust local law enforcement to abide by the law."
"They realize it's going to be awfully tempting for local police to share information with ICE for public safety reasons," Vaughan said.
But an advocate for undocumented immigrants, Bryan MacCormack of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement, said it was appropriate for the Cuomo administration to secure agreements from police agencies to ensure the data will be shielded from immigration enforcement agencies, as the new law dictates.
"This is simply providing a method of accountability that is baked in a law that already exists," said MacCormack. He said his group has assisted some 300 undocumented immigrants get their licenses at the Columbia County DMV office in what he called a "smooth rollout" of the Green Light program.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security disclosed last month that it has initiated a review of the Green Light Law in New York and similar statutes across the country, suggesting the statutes could be impeding federal law enforcement's ability to investigate terrorism and human trafficking.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.