December 11 2019

Drive Time: Law set to provide driver’s licenses for all immigrants

By Gregg McQueen

“Do your job.”

Lawmakers and advocates are demanding that county clerks throughout the state fulfill their responsibilities – no matter their politics.

New York State is set to become the 13th state in the country to offer undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain a driver’s license.

Starting December 14, all immigrants in the state, regardless of status, will be eligible to gain a license from the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) after proving residency and passing their driving tests.

The new law, known as Green Light NY, was passed in June and restores the ability of all New York immigrants to access a license, after former Governor George Pataki reversed the measure via executive order in 2001.

According to a report by the Fiscal Policy Institute, Green Light NY is expected to affect about 265,000 people throughout the state, including 150,000 alone in New York City.

Advocates for the bill have said it will help immigrants travel to jobs and doctor’s appointments, boost the state economy and improve road safety by reducing hit-and-runs and lowering the number of uninsured drivers.

New York would receive $57 million in annual revenue and $26 million in one-time revenue from the purchase of driver’s licenses, cars, registrations, and sales and gas taxes, said the Fiscal Policy Institute’s report.

“Driver’s licenses make all of New York a stronger state. It makes our roads safer, it makes our economy more robust, and it makes our communities more cohesive,” argued Steven Choi, Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), at a media briefing on December 9. “This is going to be good not just for immigrant New Yorkers, it’s going to be good for all New Yorkers.”

Choi said the law would benefit New Yorkers outside of the city the most, where cars are needed to get around.

Immigrant applicants are required to provide several documents to the DMV as proof of age and identity, and will also need to take a driving course, pass a written test and road test in order to get a license, just like any other applicant for a New York driver’s license.

Non-citizens can only be issued a standard license, which cannot be used to board an airplane or access a federal facility, but can be used to drive a vehicle.

Beginning December 14, applicants do not need to provide a Social Security number or card to obtain a license in New York — they can instead sign an affidavit attesting that they do not have one.

Also, the DMV is not permitted to ask questions about immigration status of applicants, said Anu Joshi, Senior Director of Immigration Policy for NYIC.

While many immigrants have expressed concern over privacy protection, Joshi stressed that the law prevents the DMV from keeping copies of documents.

“The DMV will no longer scan or keep copies of any of the forms of proof of identity or age that applicants provide for a standard license,” Joshi said. “They will simply look at it, authenticate it, and hand it right back to you. That is incredibly important to ensure that applicant info is safe and not even available in a DMV database.”

One major change the law provides for is the acceptance of foreign-issued documents for proof of identity and age, Joshi said. These include valid foreign passports or driver’s licenses.

The DMV will also accept IDNYC, major credit card, or U.S. high school ID with report card as proof of identification.

“We’re hearing a lot of excitement on the ground, and we’re fielding many calls with questions on how to apply,” said Charlie HoYun Cheon, an organizer with the MinKwon Center for Community Action.

“Over the next few months, we’ll hear feedback regarding their experience with the DMV,” he said. “As the rollout of the new licenses provides equal access to many immigrants for whom English is not their first language, we urge New York State to take measures to ensure that language access is upheld as a priority at the DMV in all phases of the application process, including the road test.”

State Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, who sponsored the bill in the Assembly, acknowledged there could be reluctance among some immigrants to apply for a license due to concerns about information sharing and distrust of government.

But in crafting the legislation, insisted Crespo, state lawmakers sought to safeguard against the misuse of sensitive data.

“We have done everything we can in the language of this bill to be as protective as possible of the information,” said Crespo. “We have been very careful to limit the interaction between the Department of Motor Vehicles and federal agencies that enforce immigration laws.”

“Can we guarantee everyone that nothing will ever occur? No. But I can assure you that I trust in our Attorney General and the language of this bill,” he added.
He called on the state to hold county clerks accountable for processing the licenses.

“Do your job,” Crespo said. “You should not put your politics ahead of your responsibility.”

Crespo noted that the bill includes language that allows the DMV to expand the types of documentation that can be submitted.

“If you do not meet the qualifications today, we can start to have conversations about additional documentation that should be considered,” Crespo said.

“I think we can learn from other states that have implemented this, like California and Washington State, where the advocacy community there worked closely with the DMV and government to improve the process,” Joshi said. “They saw their number of applicants increase dramatically as they were able to work with the DMV to improve the process.”

However, Choi said he expected the rollout of the Green Light bill to be relatively smooth.

“There are 12 other states that have done this,” he said. “This is not rocket science. And it was the law of the land in New York for decades. So, we know how to do this.”

For information directly from NYS Department of Motor Vehicles, please visit