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Lawsuits Challenging the Green Light Law are a Sham

By: Simon McCormack Senior Writer, Communications & Amy Belsher Director of Immigrants’ Rights Litigation, Legal

Update November 8, 2019: A court dismissed the lawsuit filed by Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns challenging the Green Light law.

Having played a central role in the campaign to pass Green Light, the New York Civil Liberties Union celebrated when New York passed the Green Light law in June.

Green Light allows New Yorkers who pass all the required tests to get a driver’s license, regardless of their immigration status. As other states with similar laws have shown, Green Light will make our roads safer for everyone. The passage of the law this summer was noteworthy, even in a legislative session that saw many momentous victories for those working towards a fairer New York.

“In a time when immigrants are being scapegoated for every ill in our country, this is our opportunity for New York State to show our courage and strength, and stand up for the marginalized communities,” bill sponsor, Senator Luis Sepúlveda said when the legislation passed. “For economic, safety, and moral reasons, our communities deserve the Green Light Bill.”

Then came the threats and the lawsuits.

Days after the Green Light bill was signed, Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns announced his refusal to implement the law. Now, Kearns, along with county clerks in Monroe and Rensselaer, have filed federal lawsuits challenging the law’s constitutionality. The county clerks argue that compliance with Green Light would place them in violation of a number of federal statutes, including one referred to as Section 1373.

County clerks, for their part, have no authority to simply ignore state law and make up their own rules.

Section 1373 prohibits state and local governments from limiting the sharing of information related to immigration status with federal immigration authorities.

But, as the NYCLU notes in a “friend of the court” brief filed last week in defense of Green Light, every lower court to recently consider the issue has found this statute violates the Tenth Amendment. The amendment states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

While the federal government has broad powers over immigration, it does not have the power to compel cooperation from state agencies. Immigration enforcement is the responsibility of federal immigration authorities, not local officials, and the federal government can’t force states to help with immigration enforcement. County clerks, for their part, have no authority to simply ignore state law and make up their own rules.

The NYCLU also argues in the brief that, since Green Light does not require the state to collect information related to immigration status, Section 1373 doesn’t apply in the first place.

Section 1373 is also the statute at the heart of the Trump Administration’s many attempts to withhold federal funds from state and local governments that limit their cooperation with immigration authorities.

It is a pernicious and unconstitutional law that should be struck from the books. And it certainly should not keep New York from maintaining a law that makes all of us safer.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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