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County Clerks Vow to Call ICE on Undocumented New Yorkers Who Want to Drive

“If one of my staff members wanted to call ICE [on undocumented immigrants] I’m not gonna tell them they can’t," one clerk said.

Tommy Walters

Nov 08, 2019

The Niagara County Court House and Clerk's office.

County Clerks in Upstate New York are threatening to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if undocumented immigrants attempt to legally apply for driver’s licenses in their offices. 

“I’ll make this very clear: If someone was to come in [to my office] with improper documentation, I would consider that probable cause to notify legal authorities that there are individuals here who may have broken the law. This could mean ICE,” Allegany County Clerk Robert L. Christman, said.

The Green Light bill, passed in June, allows New Yorkers regardless of immigration status, to acquire a driver’s license or a learners’ permit. But now, three lawsuits filed by Erie, Niagara and Rensselaer County Clerks, who oversee their local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices, hope to sabotage the law before it comes into effect on December 14.

The Erie County lawsuit, filed by County Clerk Michael Kearns, was heard in Buffalo Federal Court and, on Friday, was dismissed. Judge Elizabeth A. Wolford found that Kearns had no legal standing in his case. The suit is expected to go to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I am one hundred percent steadfast opposed to this bill,” said Niagara County Clerk Joseph Jastrzemski, who filed a lawsuit himself with New York State Supreme court on October 16 against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James, and the DMV commissioner Mark J.F. Schroeder, challenging the bill’s constitutionality.

Jastrzemski said if the lawsuit against the bill fails, he would then allow his staff to notify immigration agents about suspected undocumented applicants. “If one of my staff members wanted to call ICE [on undocumented immigrants] I’m not gonna tell them they can’t. Maybe we’ll have them on speed dial,” he said. 

Opponents of the bill argue that complying with the state law would cause them to break the federal anti-harboring statute, which makes it illegal to assist anyone whom they should reasonably know is in the country illegally. “It puts us county clerks in a compromising position. It’s allowing us to break federal law,” said Jastrzemski.

These pledges have been denounced by immigrants’ rights organizations intervening in the Erie’s lawsuit, including LatinoJustice PRLDEF, who hope to protect some of the estimated 750,000 undocumented people in New York who will benefit, according to Pew Research Center. 

“The threat of ICE is already looming over all immigrant communities,” said Christiaan Perez, Manager of Advocacy and Digital Strategy at Latino Justice. “County collaboration with ICE causes real concerns.”

ICE has claimed it has collaborated with local DMVs in the past to retrieve data from their databases to locate pre-existing priority targets, but not to identify new enforcement targets, according to a report by the National Immigration Law Center. 

The Green Light bill, which passed by a narrow margin of 33 to 29 in the senate, has invited criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. Alan Burnstein, Cattaraugus’ County Clerk and a Democrat, complained about being “kept in the dark” about how issuing licenses will work. “The clock is ticking … and the state hasn’t even shared any procedures with me,” he said. 

Burnstein added he would stand by Republican clerks if they were threatened by the governor with removal for opposing the bill, complaining that “the state is passing the buck on independently elected officials, while also giving them extra work.”

“Tempers are flaring,” said State Senator Jessica Ramos, who represents District 13 in Queens, about the bill she helped to pass through the Senate. “But I would caution county clerks threatening to call ICE on undocumented people applying for driver’s licences. I think we should just work towards maintaining a civil discourse.”

“I would assume many of these [undocumented] people are employed on farms and at local businesses,” said Ramos. “So I don’t know what [the county clerks] are thinking. They are just hurting their own economy in a very negligent way. I guess they’re driven by their own ideology, but it’s just not smart math.”

Ramos added: “A lot of people forget that it’s not that undocumented New Yorkers never had the ability to drive. Instead, it was taken away after September 11th, 2001. So really, this [bill] is just restoring their right to drive.”

Update: This article was updated on Friday, Nov. 9 to reflect a decision in the federal lawsuit filed by Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns.



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