Driver’s Licenses: The Difference This Time

Driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants would make us all safer.
Driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants would make us all safer.

The New York Immigration Coalition is beginning a major push for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Anyone who remembers the bitter, and ultimately unsuccessful, struggle over this issue in 2007 has to ask what is different this time around. Let me take you back to that time nearly seven years ago to recall what happened then and how things are different now.

The 2007 announcement by Governor Eliot Spitzer that the state would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses came to New Yorkers as a bolt from the sky. Our groups found out about it only a short time before the initial announcement. I recall asking what the press strategy was to reassure New Yorkers that this move would make everyone safer and I never got any real answer. As I would soon learn, there was no strategy.

Spitzer, for all his good intentions on this issue, seemed to just assume that since he could do this unilaterally he did not really have to convince anyone else that it made sense. His people also asked the immigrant rights groups to stay on the sidelines, that Spitzer would handle the press on this one.

When Spitzer’s announcement was made, he concentrated on how it would help immigrants, rather than on how it made everyone safer. The announcement immediately garnered major opposition from Republicans. At that time, the Republican Party nationally had taken a harsh deport-them-all approach to undocumented immigrants. Even more alarmingly, many major Democrats either stayed silent on the proposal, or actively opposed it.

Learning from the past, the New York Immigration Coalition is not seeking unilateral action from the governor to open up drivers’ licenses to the undocumented. It has instead decided to take the legislative route. This will not take a few months to accomplish, but could be a struggle lasting a year or longer. The coalition is beginning to line up Democrats in favor of the bill, but it is also reaching out to Republicans.

We hope that at least a few Republicans can be reached because of changes within the Republican Party since Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012. Polling shows that the American people no longer believe that mass deportations can or should take place. They also want practical solutions to the problems raised by having large numbers of undocumented people living in our communities. Combining a lessened antagonism towards immigrants and a need by politicians to win votes among the growing Latino and Asian voter bases and you have a situation where some conservative lawmakers may be more open to a drivers’ license bill.

The Coalition is also addressing the need to build support for license legislation by organizing a movement behind it. Last week more than 50 organizations met in Manhattan to discuss the campaign. Those groups are already meeting with their immigrant constituencies to mobilize for licenses. Planning is underway to create a media plan and an outreach program so that all New Yorkers will know that this is not something they should be afraid of.

In 2007 we were weaker after the drivers’ license debacle. This year we will be stronger as the campaign moves forward.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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