With red flags, Green Light Law not as easy as 1, 2, 3

Documented: There's ample evidence that granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants improves vehicular safety and state revenues, according to Margaret Gray and Olivia Heffernan.
By MARGARET GRAY and OLIVIA HEFFERNAN //

Do you know about the Green Light Law? If you drive anywhere in New York, you probably should.

As of Dec. 16, New York residents are eligible to obtain driver’s license regardless of their immigration status. New Yorkers should see public health and economic benefits as a result of Green Light, which passed the New York State Legislature in June.

Efforts to derail the legislation, however, have left advocates concerned that fear will deter undocumented immigrants from seeking licenses.

Licenses, license plates and registration fees incurred for the nearly 1 million people in New York now eligible to apply for driver’s licenses would generate an initial $26 million for the state and counties, and then $57 million a year, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.

Another study shows that residents of states that allow undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses save 2 percent in car insurance costs.

Margaret Gray: Overcoming the fear factor.

In addition to revenue, Green Light will improve public safety. At the most basic level, securing a driver’s license requires passing written and road tests, tests undocumented drivers without state licenses do not take. Furthermore, because it is extremely difficult to obtain car insurance without a driver’s license, undocumented drivers are often unable to cover medical bills or property damages in the case of an accident – and therefore are more prone to flee the scene of a crash.

Research on whether insurance rates increase once the law takes effect is mixed, but the Insurance Federation of California reported an increase of insured drivers after the state passed a similar law. In Connecticut, where a similar law was passed in 2015, the DMV there reported a reduction in hit-and-run crashes and a decline in unlicensed-driving tickets.

The same is true for California, where Stanford University researchers found a 7- to 10-percent decrease in hit-and runs, as well as savings on property damage.

Data also reveals that states allowing the undocumented to apply for licenses have a lower fatality rate due to car accidents.

Thirteen states have passed similar versions of the Green Light bill, but New York is the only one to have had it challenged. The state’s county clerks have presented legal arguments that Green Light violates Section 1373, a federal statute that prohibits state and local governments from limiting the sharing of information related to immigration status with federal immigration authorities.

Many of the estimated 880,000 immigrant New Yorkers who gained eligibility for driver’s licenses are now fearful about applying. The lawsuits have ignited a wave of panic and uncertainty among undocumented immigrants, who now fear that ICE will have access to their information.

Olivia Heffernan: Improving safety, revenues.

The New York DMV differs from most states as it is not centrally administered. The state runs a handful of county DMVs, but for the most part, county clerks are delegated with the task of distributing licenses, granting them a level of independence.

According to Emma Kreyche, advocacy director for the Worker Justice Center of New York, this structure has paved the way for individual DMVs to fight over implementing the Green Light Law.

“In some cases, there is interest in politicizing the issue, and that happens in counties that skew more conservative than the State Legislature,” she says.

While Green Light took effect on Dec. 16, it was not until Dec. 6 that the New York DMV reached out to advocates explaining how the application process will work. Organizers within the Green Light coalition have begun town halls to inform communities about the law.

Advocacy organization Make the Road New York continues to lead public outreach campaigns to correct any misconceptions and answer questions. Organizations such as the WJCNY have also created Green Light training packets being distributing to undocumented New Yorkers.

The legal challenge waged against the law by county clerks has been sensationalized by the media, including the Spanish-language press. This is not dissimilar to the highly politicized debate over whether to add a question about citizenship on the U.S. Census.

Fortunately, New York has dedicated a $40 million budget for public outreach to assuage fears and encourage residents to participate. Make the Road and other organizations that fought for Green Light are recipients of this funding to conduct outreach education programs and community groups around the census.

The same needs to be done for Green Light. Like the census, driver’s licenses availability will affect not only immigrant communities, but all residents of New York State. We should be pushing our legislators for the resources to promote the implementation of this law and to counteract the spread of misinformation.

Margaret Gray is an associate professor of political science at Adelphi University and the author of “Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic.” Olivia Heffernan is a journalist and documentary filmmaker focused on criminal justice, immigration policy and labor rights.