As the prospect of an immigration deal fades with each day, state and local officials as well as community groups are looking for ways to ease the burden on undocumented city residents. One such initiative, Green Light NY, pressures Albany to restore the right of undocumented persons to have driver’s licenses while another initiative proposed by the city comptroller’s office attempts to address the soaring cost of filing fees to become a citizen.
Undocumented immigrants had been able to receive licenses until a 2012 change under the Pataki administration required a Social Security number in order to receive a license. According to a fact sheet from the New York Immigration Coalition, 12 states, including neighboring Connecticut, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. provide access to licenses for undocumented persons.
Advocates claim the move to allow undocumented immigrants to have driver’s licenses is a positive one, enhancing their social life and ensuring access to employment. However, there is a safety motive as well. Immigrants who cannot get licenses do not perform the written and road tests necessary for road safety. Ideally, unlicensed drivers would not be on the road, but the reality of daily life causes many to break the law to work.
In Albany, Assemblyman Miguel Crespo of the 85th District in the Bronx, introduced bill (A.10273) or the “Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act,” which not only authorizes the issuance of driver’s licenses, but also “restricts what information can be retained and given out on those applying or holding standard drivers’ licenses,” according to the bill’s summary. The bill includes a provision that licenses are not to be used as proof of immigration status and cannot be used as the basis “for investigating, arresting, or detaining a person.” The IDNYC program attracted controversy last year as city Republican lawmakers sued to prevent the automatic destruction of supporting documentation used to verify identities.
Citing hostility toward immigrants from the federal government, City Comptroller Scott Stringer has proposed a public-private “citizenship fund” to assist with the cost of application fees to become U.S. citizens. The office estimates there are 670,000 city residents, or 20 percent of New York City’s immigrant population, who are eligible and would benefit from such a partnership. The office notes that fees have increased – “up 500 percent since 1989 [then, $60], to $725 today,” adjusted for inflation. In addition to the application fee, there are costs associated with English classes and legal representation. The comptroller’s office also notes that after a filing fee increase in 2008, then to $625, the number of applications plummeted by more than half.
The fund would be run through the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and would be similar to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, which provides funding to pilot innovative programs and initiatives around the city.
There is no logical reason why it would become more expensive to become an American today than it was just 30 years ago. That filing fees have increased to a point that they would be a burden on most families is a testament to the need for reform on the federal level.
The current political environment, as well as the federal government’s approach to the issue of undocumented persons, is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, barring a change of heart from the president. Such an environment requires flexible thinking and the promotion of any available paths to citizenship. For those that have no such path, however, activist efforts such as Green Light NY to advance legislation that improves the lives of New York’s undocumented person are more important than ever.