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Immigration advocates push for undocumented farmworkers to have access to driver licenses

Nick Lippa

The New York State Fair begins Wednesday in Syracuse and stands as a celebration of the upstate agricultural economy, but the people who run those farms fear they could be deported without a license. Members of Green Light New York gathered Tuesday in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester highlighting the benefits of immigrant farmworkers receiving a license.

They claim state revenue from licensing and other fees would increase by $57 million annually for city and county governments statewide. Justice for Migrant Families Organizer Jennifer Connor said it also addresses a public safety concern.

“It is very risky for someone to drive without a license,” said Connor. “Many of the immigrant laborers are unable to access a license right now. We want to see a policy change, a bill change, or an executive order that changes that today.”

Change could be enacted through a direct order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo or a change in law. The Driver’s License and Privacy Act has been in front of the Assembly since this past April and has 34 members currently signed on as well as nine from the Senate.

UB Law Professor Nicole Hallett said the time it takes to become a legal citizen needs to be taken into consideration.

“It’s very very hard to tell whether someone should be here or whether they will be allowed to stay here in the future,” said Hallet. “Even for an immigrant that has a legitimate, bona fide, really strong application to be able to stay here, often it takes years to get resolved. Whether they are applying for asylum, refugee status, or they are applying through a family member.”

Those who oppose the proposed legislation emphasize only legal citizens should have access to licenses. Even if a law were to pass, many immigrants in today’s political climate are concerned they could be deported if they were to come in contact with state authorities. Hallett said they should be safe in New York.

“The state of New York right now has a policy that state agencies are not supposed to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. I can’t promise there won’t be exceptions to that. Sometimes individuals break the law, but if they do we will make sure they are held accountable for that,” she said.

Connor believes New York is behind other progressive states on this issue.

“What we’re calling for is access to license for all immigrants in New York. To disconnect it from immigration status. The same as 12 other states have already done. The same as Washington D.C. The same as Puerto Rico,” said Connor.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Jennifer Connor speaking Wednesday outside of Trinity Church on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo

Connor added many farmers across the state depend on undocumented workers for production.

“Driving should just be about driving. A traffic stop should just be about traffic rules and not about immigration,” she said. “Workers should be able to go to the store and come back to their place of employment. It’s a huge loss for a farmer to lose a reliable worker who has been coming for years. The economic value of that can’t be measured. Literally, farms can shut down if they don’t have the workers.”

Standard licenses were eliminated after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2007 they were restored for a short time under Governor Spitzer before being rescinded again.

Some critics of the legislation over a decade ago have changed their stance. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul said she’d have undocumented immigrants arrested if they applied for a driver’s license when she was Erie County Clerk. Now she supports the idea.

Hallett said local officials need to be on board this time around.

“I’m hoping that if this law gets passed that the local jurisdictions that are responsible for issuing driver’s licenses will be involved in that public education so we can make sure that people know that it’s safe for them to come forward and get their licenses.”

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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