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Cuomo continues to question safeguards in new immigrant driver's license law

The first lawsuit has been filed against New York's new law to permit undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses as Gov. Andrew Cuomo continued to cast doubt on the effectiveness of the new law.

The lawsuit filed by Erie County Clerk Michael "Mickey" Kearns seeks court action to prevent the state from forcing county clerks who are against the new law to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Kearns. speaking a few days before the suit was filed, said he believes the New York law is unconstitutional.

"I believe that this is a violation of federal law," Kearns told Buffalo public radio station WBFO.

In the papers filed in U.S. District Court in Western New York, Kearns said the conflict between state law and federal law puts him in "an impossible position."  

Anu Joshi with the New York Immigration Coalition said it's a "frivolous lawsuit" that will ultimately fail.  

"It's just one more anti-immigrant attack," Joshi said. "We don't think it has any possibility of moving forward."  

She said 12 other states already allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, and not one of those laws has been struck down in court. 

Cuomo, speaking Tuesday after an unrelated event at the Albany airport, said he expected lawsuits after the measure was passed.

"It's a political issue, and some people are polarized on the issue," Cuomo said. "And you are going to see it play out politically." 

Cuomo continued to question the ultimate success of the new law, saying that he is not convinced it contains enough protections to prevent the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, from accessing the undocumented immigrants' personal information on the state Department of Motor Vehicles database.

"I think the federal government is going to aggressively continue. I think this is now going to play into the president's politics," Cuomo said. "He's going to say, 'You have a database of undocumented people. I want access to it.' "

The governor's comments come after a New York Times report found that ICE used facial recognition software to scan driver's license databases in three other states in search of undocumented immigrants.

Joshi said the new law includes specific protections against ICE accessing New York's DMV database, and she said it has the "strongest privacy protections" of any law in the country.

Her group issued a strongly worded statement, saying the governor should "stop throwing cold water" on the new law, and accusing Cuomo of engaging in a "charade" to scare immigrants about the "ICE boogeyman." 

"It's funny that he would say something like that when he has the power to protect the recipients of these licenses," Joshi said. "We just really want the governor to do his job to implement the law that the Legislature passed."

State Attorney General Tish James also has said that she believes New York's law will hold up to a court challenge, and said it contains adequate protections against any attempts by ICE to access the DMV database. Cuomo said he hopes James is right.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.