Albany Notebook: Green Light law looms over N.Y. Democratic primary

Joe Mahoney 

ALBANY — New York should not allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for driver's licenses, the county clerk said.

The county Auto Bureau, the clerk said, "should not facilitate violations of immigration laws." Those who seek licenses will be turned over to the sheriff, the clerk said.

Those statements were not uttered this year and the speaker was not Otsego Clerk Kathy Sinnott Gardner, Niagara County Clerk Joe Jastrzemski or Clinton Clerk John Zurlo.

No, the year was 2007, and those were the statements of then-Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, now the lieutenant governor of New York. Since becoming Gov. Andrew Cuomo's partner at the statehouse, Hochul has changed her tune on licenses for undocumented immigrants.

But her evolution is relevant because it shows that this is a combustible issue that gets strong reactions from voters, whether they oppose it or support it.

As Yogi Berra once said, it's "deja vu all over again." This time the issue of driver's licenses is flaring up as Democratic candidates for the presidency prepare for New York's April 28 primary.

It shapes up as sticky wicket for any politician who has reservations about such laws but needs to be careful about not alienating their left flank in blue states such as New York.

Cuomo set the table for the controversy by signing legislation that keeps state Department of Motor Vehicle data away from federal law enforcement agencies, unless they have a judicial warrant for it. The crimping of the data was part of the new Green Light law letting tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants immediately qualify for New York licenses.

The federal Department of Homeland Security responded to New York's legislation by announcing Feb. 5 that New Yorkers can no longer enroll in or renew their participation in several programs aimed at streamlining border crossings. Such programs are popular with upstate New Yorkers who enter Quebec or Ontario with regularity. The feds say the DMV data is needed to review the applications for the expedited travel programs.

The feds' move drew howls of protest from Cuomo. (Editor's note: A Thursday meeting between Cuomo and President Donald Trump was scheduled after this column was written. SEE PAGE 6.)

The governor accused President Donald Trump of hammering New York because the state now issues licenses to undocumented immigrants. Cuomo glossed over the fact the feds acted because of the blockade on DMV data. He also did not highlight CNHI's reporting showing how the governor's administration pressured local police agencies to agree to not share DMV data with the feds. Police executives who did not sign the agreement found their agencies blocked from the DMV photo data system.

This political hot potato, minted in New York, now awaits the Democratic hopefuls for the White House. One of them will end up as the party nominee.

Veteran Democratic consultant George Arzt advises me the most progressive candidates — Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — will likely come out in favor of the New York law, since they reflexively oppose almost every action by the Trump administration. But the calculus becomes trickier for more moderate Democrats — Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg, Arzt suggested.

"I can see this becoming one of the real wedge issues that split the progressives and moderates within the Democratic Party," Artz said.

Noting that Cuomo has talked up Biden's candidacy, Arzt said it would be interesting to know how the governor advises the former vice president on this issue.

Given the level of public opposition to Green Light, the passage of the law was a remarkable accomplishment by its advocates. Statewide, a Siena College poll released in June found only 41 percent of voters backed the measure — and that was with the question sticking to the license segment. The component of Green Light dealing with keeping the DMV data from federal cops went unmentioned.

Opposition was particularly heavy upstate (62 percent opposed). The result was more divided in the suburbs of New York City (52 percent opposed).

With New York commencing legal action against the Trump administration for being booted from the travel programs, one thing appears certain: the issue of New York blocking the feds from DMV data to protect immigrants with new licenses will hover over the presidential primaries.

And for politicians out hustling for votes, the issue is even thornier now than it was in 2007, the year Kathy Hochul told The New York Times: "It's all anyone talks about."

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

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