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Green Light NY continues to bring crowds to the DMV, but supporters say it fills a need

“Relief.”

That was the word used by supporters of the Green Light NY law, which allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses for the first time since 2001.

“This is an absolute lifesaver,” said Minerva Perez, executive director of Latino advocacy group OLA East End. “Everybody wants to see people with insurance on the road. It’s good for everyone out here. We’re a lot safer and our community is very grateful.”

Long lines have persisted at Department of Motor Vehicles offices statewide since the law took effect Dec. 16 and the number of learner’s permits granted has soared.

According to data released by the DMV, the number of learner’s permits issued statewide between Dec. 15, 2019, and Jan. 4, 2020, more than doubled: 38,394 permits compared to just 17,193 during the same period last year.

In Suffolk County, that number nearly quadrupled, from 1,218 in 2018-19 to 4,328 this year. A DMV spokesperson noted that those numbers account for all eligible applicants for a Class D permit; specific figures for the Riverhead office were not immediately available.

The pressure of so many people at one time is because of the need.

Sister Margaret Smyth

The growth prompted DMV officials to open all Long Island and New York City offices at 7:30 a.m., hire more than 300 new employees across the state and reconfigure offices to add new permit testing areas to keep up with demand. Saturday hours are also being offered at several locations, including Medford.

In a statement, DMV commissioner Mark J.F. Schroeder said the measure has had an “immediate” impact. “We have seen a large reduction in the lines outside most offices … We are continuing to make adjustments and hire more staff to further improve the service to our customers,” he said.

Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate worked with several local organizations to educate the community about the process. More than 200 immigrants attended informational sessions held in Riverhead and Greenport in anticipation of the new law and a hotline has been set up to answer questions.

“To the greatest extent, it’s been crowded,” Sister Margaret said of the Riverhead DMV office. “The pressure of so many people at one time is because of the need.”

Under the new law, people age 16 and up can apply for a standard permit regardless of their citizenship status. 

These IDs are not federally compliant and cannot be used to board domestic flights. Undocumented individuals will not be eligible for enhanced or REAL IDs that will be required to fly domestically under the Green Light Bill.

The Rev. Gerardo Romo, an Episcopal priest, speaks at the Center of Alliance, Solidarity and Accompaniment in Riverhead in June, when the Green Light NY bill passed the New York State Senate. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)

DMV customers are also being encouraged to make appointments online [dmv.ny.gov/reservation] to avoid long wait times. A handful of appointments in Riverhead are available in March, with the majority of appointments stretching into April.

Hugh Prestwood of Greenport said his recent visit to the DMV in Riverhead didn’t last long. He left after a greeter informed him the wait would be three or four hours. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I went down there expecting to have some wait — you know, it’s the DMV — but the place was jammed.”

He had been trying to renew his license and get a REAL ID, which can only be completed in person. He said he’s hoping to return later this spring with better luck. The Greenport resident said he disagrees with the new legislation. “The more benefits you bestow … I just think you’re incentivizing more and more illegal immigration,” he said.

Undocumented New Yorkers were previously allowed to have driver’s licenses if they passed the required tests and proved their residency; however that ended via executive order by former governor George Pataki in 2001.

New York is one of 14 states to allow residents to drive regardless of their legal status. A similar law is poised to take effect in New Jersey in 2021.

All learner’s permit applicants must still submit a combination of documents to prove their identity, date of birth and New York State residency. 

Applicants must still comply with New York State guidelines that require new drivers to hold a permit for six months, take a five-hour pre-licensing course and pass a road test before obtaining a full driver’s license, officials said.

Sister Margaret and Ms. Perez agreed that local DMV employees were handling the situation well — and on one occasion, treating some standing in line in the cold to doughnuts.

“The DMV has really worked hard to make these systems work so they can make it all happen,” Ms. Perez said. Her team has maintained a presence near the DMV to help people navigate the process. Meanwhile, a team of OLA’s lawyers has been helping undocumented drivers seek adjournments in cases where they’ve been ticketed for unlicensed driving. “Judges want to know things are moving forward,” Ms. Perez said. “Prior to that, there was no process.”

Flanders resident and SEPA Mujer coordinator Paola Zuniga-Tellez advocated for the new law. She’s also been a regular face at the DMV to help others begin the process that she completed herself on Dec. 30.

A native of Mexico, Ms. Zuniga-Tellez was brought here by her mother when she was 13. “I never had that big moment,” she said, as a teenager. “It was amazing just having the opportunity. I was so happy,” the now-34-year-old said. “I felt like, finally, I’m a grown-up now.”

She said the sense of relief is shared among her entire family, including two kids ages 9 and 12. “They’re kids, but they know what’s going on in the political climate we’re in,” she said. “To have that little paper, it’s a big thing for us.”