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Driving Could Get Some New Yorkers Deported. Here’s What We Can do to Protect Them

By: Zach Ahmad Senior Policy Counsel, Policy

For some New Yorkers, just driving their child to the emergency room can be a big risk.  

For them, simple tasks like driving to work, taking their kids to school or picking up a prescription mean that an everyday encounter with law enforcement could get them arrested, detained, or even deported. 

One critical way to lessen those risks is to give all New Yorkers equal access to driver’s licenses, regardless of a person’s immigration status. 

Doing this would help people like Dalila in the Albany region, a single mother of two children who have U.S. citizenship, who says the hardest part of not having a driver’s license is not being able to take her children to the emergency room when they need immediate care. She has a son with special needs and five to eight medical  appointments a month that are difficult to get to without driving.  Making matters more difficult is the fact that her daughter’s school is a few miles away, and it takes her three buses to get there without driving.

Dalila, knows from personal experience that without a license, a simple traffic stop could lead to her family being torn apart. She spent several weeks separated from her children, locked up in federal immigration detention after she was stopped by police for rolling through a stop sign last year.

Dalila’s story isn’t an anomaly.

In documents the NYCLU obtained via public records requests to Border Patrol and local police, we saw many stories of people who were stopped for a traffic violation and then held by police until Border Patrol arrived to detain them – even though state law prohibits this. 

In one case a driver was pulled over for speeding, and asked for his identification. When he presented a Honduran passport instead of a driver’s license he was held by police until Border Patrol could arrive to detain him. In another case, a sheriff responding to a car accident called an ambulance, and then also called Border Patrol to report an unlicensed driver who was injured in the accident. 

Any encounter with police can be more risky for immigrants who don’t have a government-issued ID.

Drivers aren’t the only ones facing risk when traveling without a license. The records we received documented several instances in which local law enforcement asked passengers for documentation.

In one example, a woman who was a passenger in a car that was stopped by police in Hamburg was asked for ID. When she couldn’t produce it, Border Patrol was called and she was detained until they came to pick her up. In another, a driver pulled over for talking on his cell phone presented a driver’s license, but the Niagara County sheriff asked his passenger for identification and then detained the passenger until Border Patrol could arrive. 

Any encounter with police can be riskier for immigrants who don’t have a government-issued ID. A low-level offense that a person might ordinarily receive a summons for is more likely to lead to an arrest if police can’t identify them. While police can use alternative ways to ascertain a person’s identity, a state-issued driver’s license is one of the most common ways to do so. When people are arrested and booked, even for a minor violation, their fingerprints are scanned and sent to a federal database that ICE can access. 

Providing driver’s licenses to all qualified New York drivers would cut down on these types of incidents and it would also make our roads safer by ensuring that more drivers have passed driving tests and more cars have been insured. 

A dozen states have passed legislation that removed barriers that immigrants face when applying for licenses. Some states that expanded driver’s license access saw declines in the number of driver fatalities and uninsured motorists in the years that followed.

Licensing more drivers is also good for New York’s economy. Licensing thousands of new drivers will bring in new registration fees, and the Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that allowing equal driver’s license access will produce $57 million in annual revenue and $27 million in one-time revenue.

With the Trump administration determined to terrorize immigrants in innumerable ways, making driver’s licenses available to all qualified New Yorkers is more critical than ever. 

The Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, often called the Green Light bill, would make licenses available to New Yorkers regardless of immigration status. The legislation could help 265,000 people obtain licenses and mitigate the risk of having a minor law enforcement encounter escalate. 

Legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo rightly celebrated passage of the DREAM Act in January, which gives undocumented students access to state financial aid. But when it comes to protecting the safety and well-being of immigrant New Yorkers and keeping them out of the clutches of Trump’s deportation force, there is much more work to do. 

Allowing all qualified drivers to obtain a driver’s license should be the next step.

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