ALBANY, NY – Bundled in winter jackets, immigrants lined up at some Department of Motor Vehicle offices throughout New York as the state began issuing driver's licenses Monday that don't require applicants to prove they are in the country legally.
Hundreds of New Yorkers waited outside motor vehicle agencies in New York City, while several upstate clerks said they saw few applicants. License applicants without a valid Social Security number can now submit multiple alternative forms of ID that includes valid passports and driver’s licenses issued in other countries. State DMV officials said they adjusted staffing levels and updated their reservation system in anticipation of such large crowds Monday.
“This is a major step forward for all New Yorkers as we keep building New York to live up to its full potential of equity, opportunity, and justice," said state Sen. Luis Sepúlveda last week. “We also look forward to the significant economic and safety benefits the law will bring to communities across our state."
At least one county clerk in upstate New York opposed to the law said he was turning away applicants. Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola, one of several clerks who has sued to block New York's law said his office had turned away an applicant who wanted a driver's permit but lacked a social security number.
“I was pretty adamant that I was going to have a tough time doing it out of my office," Merola said. “That might have discouraged people coming to my office.”
The Republican clerk said his office directed the applicant across the Hudson River to the state-run Department of Motor Vehicles offices in Albany.
Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration has said any clerks who do not want to follow state law should resign.
“Local officials, including county clerks who run DMV offices, cannot choose which laws they like and which they will disregard,"said Department of Motor Vehicles Spokeswoman Lisa Koumjian. “If a clerk is unwilling to follow State law, he or she should resign their office."
New York now accepts documents such as foreign passports, permanent resident cards, foreign driver's licenses and border crossing cards from driver's license applicants.
Merola and several other clerks have claimed their staff lack the training and equipment to verify foreign documents and properly comply with the law. Merola said only three out of 17 of his employees have had time to watch a one-hour webinar provided by the DMV this month.
Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns, a Democrat who ran on the Republican line, said that his employees took applications from about 10 individuals Monday. He said he directed his employees to refer applications to his office so that he can authenticate and verify them. “We haven't processed any paperwork but we're not turning anyone away,” he said.
Cuomo's administration said they have provided county and state DMV staff with devices to authenticate documents, and provided hands-on-training when they installed devices. A spokeswoman said the state DMV also provided two training sessions, training materials and two online webinars.
“The law applies to only one license transaction and the DMV is not creating a new license or overhauling the current process," Koumjian said.
Immigration advocates have said they're ready to go to court to defend the law.
“We are grateful to the state for providing DMV staff and county clerks the training, equipment and resources they need to ensure the smooth implementation of Greenlight NY," New York Immigration Coalition NYIC Executive Director Steve Choi said.
Lawmakers in June made New York the 13th state to authorize licenses for drivers without legal immigration status. New Jersey lawmakers passed a similar bill Monday.
An estimated 265,000 immigrants without legal documents are expected to get driver’s licenses within three years, more than half of them in New York City, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.
Applicants must still get a permit and pass a road test to qualify for a “standard driver’s license,” which cannot be used for federal purposes like an enhanced driver’s license or Real ID.
This story has been corrected to show that the new law doesn't require applicants to prove they are in the country legally, not illegally.