East Hampton Town Board Supports Driver’s License Bill

Board says all should be eligible, documented or not
Taylor K. Vecsey

The East Hampton Town Board is poised to adopt a resolution supporting the goals of proposed New York State legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. 

At the board’s work session on Tuesday, Mark Butler, representing East End for Opportunity, a nonprofit organization formed to help town residents of limited financial means obtain legal help, said that the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act under consideration by the State Assembly and Senate would bring multiple benefits. It would result in more drivers who are properly licensed, educated, and tested; increase the likelihood that an immigrant driver is operating a registered, inspected, and insured vehicle, and increase cooperation with law enforcement for traffic safety as well as for all crimes, he said. 

Mr. Butler cited numerous studies to demonstrate the positive effects of such legislation. The American Automobile Association, he said, stated that undocumented immigrants are five times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than licensed drivers because of a lack of driver education. Statistics from New Mexico and Utah showed that fatalities declined after undocumented immigrants obtained driver’s licenses, he said. 

The percentage of uninsured motorists also declines after a state allows undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license, Mr. Butler said. One study showed hit-and-run accidents decreased, likely because unlicensed, undocumented immigrants are more likely to flee even if their vehicles were hit by another car, whereas a licensed driver who can prove residency and identity can be given a warning or a ticket.

William Bratton, a former police commissioner in New York City and Los Angeles, supports this kind of legislation, Mr. Butler said. Twelve states have adopted similar legislation and 12 more are considering it. 

The state is in the process of developing three levels of driver’s licenses, and the bill would permit undocumented immigrants to obtain a “standard” license, the lowest of the three. It would grant full driving privileges while stating on its face that it is not acceptable as a federal identification. 

Mr. Butler’s presentation followed one at the board’s April 16 meeting, in which Diana Walker, who works with East End for Opportunity, read into the record an April 12 New York Times editorial titled “Let Undocumented Immigrants Drive.” The proposed legislation would reflect reality, the editorial stated: “Undocumented immigrants are already driving on the state’s roads.”

The state previously allowed undocumented residents to drive, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Gov. George Pataki, “citing the threat of terrorist infiltration, issued an executive order requiring applicants to prove their legal status before obtaining licenses,” the editorial reads. It also noted that Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins “may have a tough time persuading Democrats from Long Island, where anti-immigrant sentiment can be strong.” 

The proposed legislation “does not condone illegal immigration,” Mr. Butler said. “That is a separate issue.” An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, he said, “said ‘a state’s decision on whether to allow aliens to obtain driver’s licenses is not relevant to ICE operations.’ ”

Concerns raised by law enforcement officers must be addressed, Mr. Butler said, “either by changes to the language of the law or by other guarantees” that implementation will not impact an officer’s ability to check on a person’s prior record, including any record from before the person was licensed. East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo has provided his concerns to East End for Opportunity and the board, he said. “We appreciate the importance of those concerns and are hopeful that discussions being held with the bill’s sponsors can lead to modifications that will in turn lead to support from local law enforcement.” 

Such legislation is “so long overdue,” said Councilman Jeff Bragman. “I can’t understand any policy that on one hand requires everybody to have a driver’s license, and on the other picks a discrete group and says you can’t have them.” Such a policy leaves undocumented immigrants in a state of constant fear, he said. “To criminalize people for this and subject them to the potential for being deported is completely unacceptable,” reflecting “an us-versus-them mentality. . . . It’s not ‘us versus them,’ it’s ‘we’re all in this together.’ ”

Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said that a memorializing resolution based on the concept of the proposed legislation could be voted on next Thursday, with a second resolution supporting the actual bill to follow, once its language has been modified to reflect any concerns. 

A forum on safe driving is scheduled for Wednesday from 6 to 7 p.m. at Ashawagh Hall in Springs. Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, Mr. Butler, and Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc are to participate.