Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Monday, June 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

NY Law Giving Licenses to Noncitizens Upheld

A federal judge Friday upheld a law that lets undocumented immigrants apply for driver’s licenses in New York.  

BUFFALO (CN) - A federal judge Friday upheld a law that lets undocumented immigrants apply for driver’s licenses in New York.  

“Today’s decision reinforces our position all along — the Green Light law is legal and enforceable. The law aims to make our roads safer, our economy stronger, and allows immigrants to come out of the shadows to sign up as legal drivers in our state,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement about the ruling. The law passed this past summer and is set to take effect Dec. 14, 2019. 

Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns had brought the court challenge to the law, claiming in July that it would force county clerks to violate their oaths of office to grant licenses to people they know have broken immigration laws.

Kearns also claimed he would be subjected to criminal prosecution, but the Buffalo-based U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Wolford said he was speculating. 

“In sum, it is apparent Plaintiff disagrees with the Green Light Law. But the mere disagreement with a duly-enacted state statute does not entitle anyone — even an elected official — to seek intervention from a federal court,” Wolford’s 32-page decision states.

New York has the third-largest immigrant population in the country. The Green Light Law allows people to apply for driver’s licenses without handing over a social security number, allowing the use of foreign identification documents. The law also expressly states that people do not need to prove they’re legally present in the U.S. in order to get driver’s licenses, and that the DMV cannot question them about their immigration status.

When then-Governor Eliot Spitzer made a similar order to the Green Light Law in 2007, upstate clerks revolted and refused to enforce it.

Advocates for the law say it’s safest for everyone to have a license and insurance, no matter their immigration status. Opponents say the law allows undocumented immigrants to evade detection and could allow them to vote illegally. 

Wolford, focused on Kearns, said he wasn’t the right one to challenge the law. 

“A fundamental problem with Plaintiff’s allegation is that he fails to explain why he would be personally interacting with an applicant for a driver's license,” Wolford wrote. 

“Certainly Plaintiff, the elected County Clerk, is not working the intake counter at Erie County's DMV offices, nor has he described any other scenario in which he would be personally responsible for reviewing the documents submitted by a driver's license applicant.”

New York is now one of over a dozen states plus the District of Columbia with such a law. The licenses aren’t valid federal IDs, so people can’t use them to board planes. 

Cuomo’s office and lawyers for Kearns did not immediately return requests for comment Friday afternoon. 


Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.