Eddie Taveras, New York immigration manager for FWD.us, discusses the Green Light bill during an interview in the USA TODAY Network’s Albany Bureau, April 10, 2019.
ALBANY, N.Y. – Federal immigration and border officials have been blocked from New York’s DMV database, a move that keeps them from accessing data that can be used to help determine whether a vehicle owner has a criminal history or a warrant for their arrest.
New York’s Green Light Law took effect Saturday, allowing those without legal immigration status to apply for driver’s licenses in New York.
But the law also included a provision prohibiting state DMV officials from providing any of its data to entities that enforce immigration law unless a judge orders them to, leading the state to cut off database access to at least three federal agencies last week.
Among them were U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP — which patrols the U.S.-Canada border in New York — and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Federal officials appeared caught off guard by the change last week, which was laid out in the state law approved in June.
The information federal officers can access from the database is important to keep them and the public safe, said Mark Morgan, CBP’s acting commissioner.
“New York’s Green Light Law is detrimental to CBP and ICE,” Morgan said in a statement Tuesday.
“The information we receive from New York state is vital to our missions, and blocking federal law enforcement officers from accessing it creates a significant threat to both officer and public safety.”
The data is “vital to building out these criminal cases, identifying criminal suspects, and enhancing officer safety,” according to the Department of Homeland Security.
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The DMV database allows officers to quickly access information about a vehicle registration holder, including their traffic history. The data can then be used to determine whether a driver is on a sex-offender registry or has a criminal history and whether they have outstanding warrants.
Officers often run license plates through the database during traffic stops and similar encounters.
New York’s Democratic-led Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved the Green Light Law in June, allowing immigrants living in the country without legal permission to use foreign-issued documents to prove their age and identity so they can apply for driving privileges.
The law reversed the state’s post-9/11 policy of denying driving privileges to immigrants without legal immigration status.
State lawmakers inserted the data-blocking provision into the bill a week before it passed, when immigrant organizations and Cuomo expressed concern that ICE and CBP would be able to easily obtain information about immigrants seeking a license, perhaps making it easier for them to be deported.
Specifically, the provision says DMV “shall not disclose” any records or information to “any agency that primarily enforces immigration law.”
The only exceptions are if the DMV commissioner is served with “a lawful court order or judicial warrant,” according to the law.
Even then, the DMV has to notify the person at the center of a federal agency’s inquiry within three days.
DMV spokeswoman Lisa Koumjian said the state agency is bound by the law. No negotiations are underway to restore the federal agencies’ access to the database, she said.
“Under the Green Light Law, no DMV data of any kind can be shared with an agency that primarily enforces immigration law, which means ICE, Customs and Border Protection and Citizenship and Immigration Services do not have access to data unless the DMV is presented with a valid judge-signed court order, subpoena or judicial warrant,” Koumjian said in a statement.
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Trump’s DOJ calls provision ‘legally suspect’
Anu Joshi, the New York Immigration Coalition’s senior director of immigration policy, said supporters of the Green Light Law are proud it has “some of the strongest privacy protections of any such law in the country.”
At least a dozen other states allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driving privileges.
“We should be clear that this law doesn’t just protect the data of undocumented immigrants; it protects the data of all New Yorkers who are applying for a standard license,” Joshi said Tuesday. “It treats all New Yorkers who are applying for a standard license the same.”
President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice weighed in earlier this month, intervening in Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola’s lawsuit that sought to block the Green Light Law from taking effect.
Trump, a Republican, has made tough immigration policies a central piece of his presidency.
The DOJ only weighed in on the data-blocking provision, calling it “legally suspect” and questioning whether it violates federal law.
But U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe later dismissed Merola’s lawsuit entirely without considering the DOJ questions, deciding Merola didn’t have the legal capacity to sue.
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., wrote a letter Friday to Cuomo, a Democrat, urging him to restore the federal agencies’ access to the DMV information.
She questioned whether citizens with enhanced driver’s licenses — which allow the license holder to cross the Canadian border — would be able to re-enter the U.S. if Customs agents don’t have access to the database.
A CBP spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether that’s the case.
“Hamstringing (Border Patrol agents’) ability to effectively execute their jobs is a huge mistake and I urge you to consider the safety of all Americans by immediately reversing this decision,” Stefanik wrote.
Jon Campbell covers state government and politics for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @JonCampbellGAN.
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