Palpable anxiety filled a room at the Center of Alliance, Solidarity and Accompaniment (CASA) in Riverhead the evening of June 17 as the “Green Light NY” bill came down to a vote on the floor of the New York State Senate.
Roughly 75 immigrants, community members and activists gathered, holding candles and locking hands in prayer as they watched a live stream of the debate and vote.
The bill, which would permit undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, faced an uncertain future in the Senate after being passed in the state Assembly last week.
Noemi Sanchez, a coordinator at CASA, described how fear and apprehension have become the norm for so many immigrants in the community, including her daughter.
“She needs to go to the doctor, she needs to bring her baby to day care and she’s scared the police will stop her,” Ms. Sanchez said. “There are a lot of stops by the police and they call ICE and deport.”
When word came of the passage of the bill, tears streamed and the crowd of supporters in Riverhead erupted in cheers as the roll call vote resulted in a 33-29 victory. Governor Andrew Cuomo quickly signed the bill into law.
Shelter Island Police Chief Jim Read said the new legislation is a good thing, and he was joined in that assessment by his East End colleagues.
“The East End Chiefs of Police collectively have met several times with advocates for [the law] on both the North and South forks to discuss granting undocumented immigrants drivers’ licenses,” the chief told the Reporter on Monday. “In these discussions, we’ve been very clear that all persons who operate motor vehicles on our roadways need to be licensed. Properly issued driver’s licenses can increase public safety and provide the police with a valid form of identification.”
Among the supporters at the Riverhead gathering was Reverend Geraldo Romo-Garcia, the bishop’s vicar for Hispanic ministry at the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. He said the measure would result in better transportation and more opportunities, especially for those living on the East End or in rural areas upstate.
“It’s inhumane to see people cycling or walking or waiting for a bus in very, very cruel weather conditions,” he said.
That sentiment resonated with local activists, who agreed that the East End relies on a largely immigrant workforce, but doesn’t provide adequate transportation. Minerva Perez, executive director of Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, said in an interview last week that the East End is “virtually unlivable” without a car.
Ms. Perez, Reverend Romo-Garcia and other proponents of the legislation said the law would lead to greater public safety, as more drivers would pass road tests, have vehicle inspections and obtain insurance.
The bill would allow undocumented immigrants access to “standard” drivers’ licenses, one of three types the federal government will unveil in October 2020, provided they prove their identity and pass written and road tests.
Historically, undocumented residents in New York were allowed to have driver’s licenses if they passed the required tests and proved their residency. In 2001, former governor George Pataki reversed that measure via executive order.
With the law’s passage in New York, only 13 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico allow undocumented immigrants to have driver’s licenses.