In 2019 the New York State Legislature passed the Green Light Bill thanks to advocacy by tens of thousands of New Yorkers and organizations like the NYCLU. Green Light allows all New Yorkers the opportunity to earn a driver’s license if they pass all necessary driving tests, regardless of their immigration status.
Making driver’s licenses accessible allows people to participate equally in daily life, makes our roads safer by ensuring drivers are qualified, and helps our economy by registering new drivers. Undocumented New Yorkers do not have to struggle to get to work, keep medical appointments, take children to school, or more, simply because they cannot access driver’s licenses.
Below are answers to common questions about the Green Light law and what it means for all New Yorkers.
What is Green Light?
The Green Light legislation changed New York law to make sure that everyone, regardless of their immigration status, can apply for a New York State driver’s license. For nearly two decades before the bill passed, people without proof of immigration status were barred from obtaining a license, and were unable to do basic things like drive their children to school or drive to a doctor’s appointment. The Green Light campaign was led by a broad coalition of immigrants’ rights organizations across the state of New York.
Who can apply for a license?
Under the new law, people who don’t have a Social Security number (SSN) can apply for a “standard” driver’s license by signing an affidavit saying they have not been issued an SSN. The DMV now also accepts consular identification cards and other foreign documents as proof of identity, allowing more foreign-born New Yorkers to get a license. A full list of the documents the DMV accepts and the points assigned to them can be found on the DMV’s website. Applicants must also give one form of proof of New York residency.
Are there different types of driver’s licenses people can get?
Yes. The DMV offers three types of licenses: enhanced driver’s licenses, REAL IDs, and standard driver’s licenses. Standard licenses are available regardless of immigration status – all New Yorkers can apply for one. These licenses will state “NOT FOR FEDERAL PURPOSES” in the right-hand corner, but otherwise must look the same. REAL IDs require proof of “lawful presence” in the U.S., and have other more stringent documentation requirements that many might find hard to satisfy. These licenses have a small star in the corner. Enhanced driver’s licenses can be used in lieu of a passport at certain border crossings and are only available to U.S. citizens.
Though the new law requires that standard licenses be available to everyone, there is no such thing as a “Green Light license,” and DMV employees are not supposed to ask you about your immigration status. The new law makes it unlawful to use the type of license a person holds as evidence of their immigration status.
If I am eligible for more than one type of license, which one should I get?
That is up to you, but there are a number of things to consider. In addition to requiring proof of citizenship or lawful presence, REAL IDs and enhanced driver’s licenses require a SSN and two separate proofs of New York residency. When you apply for a REAL ID or enhanced license, the DMV will also scan and store electronic copies of the documents you use to prove your age and identity for at least 10 years. This is required in order for New York to be deemed in compliance with the REAL ID Act of 2005, which the NYCLU and the ACLU have long opposed. Both REAL IDs and enhanced licenses are considered REAL ID-compliant. Some people may find it more convenient to carry a REAL ID for travel purposes, though travelers can also use a valid passport at airports.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said that in the future a REAL ID-compliant license will be needed to use at airport security checks and to enter certain federal facilities. This was supposed to take effect in October 2020, but the department recently announced that this will happen on October 1, 2021. Many New Yorkers may opt for a standard license because they do not want their documents to be scanned and stored, and may want to show solidarity with people who are only eligible for one type of license. The more New Yorkers who hold standard licenses, the harder it will be for people to make assumptions about a person’s immigration status because of the driver’s license they hold.
Does the Green Light law protect driver’s license holders’ privacy?
Yes. The Green Light law was written with privacy in mind, and contains a number of protections.
Unlike with REAL IDs, the DMV is not allowed to scan the identity documents presented by standard license applicants. The law makes clear that certain personally identifiable information cannot be considered a public record and cannot be disclosed in response to a records request. The law also restricts access to DMV data by immigration authorities unless they have a court order or judicial warrant. Others who might have access to DMV records also have to certify that they won’t use them for immigration enforcement purposes. In 2020 the state legislature approved a change to the law allowing records to be disclosed to immigration authorities only if necessary for a person to be accepted into a “trusted traveler program” (TTP), such as Global Entry, and to facilitate vehicle imports and exports.
The NYCLU is actively monitoring how the DMV implements these privacy protections. However, no privacy protections can completely eliminate the risk that a person’s information might be improperly accessed or used for immigration enforcement. Obtaining a driver’s license is essential for many, and each person who wants a driver’s license should balance the need for a driver’s license against the potential risk that some of their personal information might be made available.
Are there lawsuits over the Green Light law?
Yes. Shortly after the law was passed, multiple county clerks – who, in many parts of the state, are tasked with administering licenses on behalf of the DMV – sued the state over the law in both federal and state court. The New York State Attorney General is defending the law, and the NYCLU has submitted briefs in support of the law’s validity. The different lawsuits that have been filed make a variety of claims, and as of April 2020, every court that has decided these cases has denied the challenges to the law. The first lawsuit to be filed against the Green Light law is now on appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
In 2020, the Trump administration announced that it would not accept applications to TTP programs from New Yorkers, claiming that the Green Light law blocked their access to information they need to process applications. Both the New York Attorney General and the NYCLU have sued the federal government over this, and have questioned the need for DMV data for those purposes. Though the law was changed in 2020 to allow some information to be provided for TTP purposes, the federal government has not announced that they will lift their ban, and the lawsuits are still pending.
I’ve had problems applying for a driver’s license. What can I do?
The NYCLU is aware of a number of issues people have had applying for driver’s licenses since the Green Light law passed, particularly outside of New York City. Because county clerks administer licenses in parts of the state, some employees may not be fully trained in the law’s requirements, and some clerks have been resistant to implementing the law. If you have had problems applying for a license – such as being told you can’t apply, being discriminated against because of your immigration status or ethnicity, or being threatened with immigration consequences – you can contact the NYCLU.