Michael Gormley, AP, June 7, 2007
New York has the right to deny driver’s licenses to immigrants who can’t prove they are in the country legally, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday.
A lawsuit brought by immigrants and their advocates claimed a state Department of Motor Vehicles policy created by the Pataki administration “is essentially an effort to deny driver’s licenses to immigrants not legally present in New York,” the Court of Appeals decision stated.
“To state the obvious, undocumented aliens lack documents,” wrote Judge Robert Smith in the 5-2 decision, “And the DMV’s right to insist on such documents is undisputed.”
At issue was a rule issued Sept. 6, 2001, just five days before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, requiring driver’s license applicants to provide federal immigration documents to prove they were in the country legally. Some of the Sept. 11 hijackers had obtained driver’s licenses. Seven of the terrorists exploited loopholes in other states that allowed people to obtain driver’s licenses and ID cards by submitting sworn statements instead of proof of residency or identity.
The state has long required applicants who don’t have Social Security numbers to submit a Social Security Administration letter stating the person wasn’t eligible to work in the U.S. so wasn’t issued a Social Security number, but was present in the country legally. The 2001 rule made immigrants provide more proof.
The lawsuit was launched after the state started cracking down in 2004, an effort that was expected to result in the loss of driver’s licenses for 300,000 illegal immigrants.
The issue may not be over. As a candidate in 2006, Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer said he would change the rule because it doesn’t improve security and instead keeps immigrants from rising from “the shadows” and creates a class of people with no public records.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Eliot Spitzer said the court decision doesn’t change his plans to alter the DMV rule.
“The governor feels strongly that the state’s driver license policies should not unnecessarily keep people who should have licenses from getting them, and the administration’s efforts continue in earnest to review the considerations involved in making any policy change,” said Christine Anderson.