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Looking at the Green Light Law and what’s next as political battle plays out

Session gets into specifics of Green Light Law

– By Gabriel Pietrorazio

This last Sunday, the ceiling of the Lirtugia Rural Worker Education Center in Lyons was decorated in multicolor festive fiesta garland that greeted guests for what seemed to be the setting of a joyous celebration, which in a way it was for New York state immigrant rights advocates at the Rural & Migrant Ministry.

Despite an ongoing political struggle the Rural & Migrant Ministry hosted an informational session full of advice to undocumented immigrants about the Green Light Law.

A mother attendee with her children sign-in for the Rural & Migrant Ministry’s Green Light Law informational session. Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio, FL1 News. 

The Green Light Law, which passed last spring was recently enacted on December 19 in 2019 allows for all New Yorkers age 16 and older to apply for a standard license for non-federal purposes, non-commercial driver license or learner permit regardless of their citizenship or lawful status within the United States.

With vans and vehicles parked outside, droves came to hear from Meghan Maloney de Zaldivar, the senior associate for regional outreach at the New York Immigrant Coalition based out of Buffalo.

Maloney presented in Spanish about the Green Light Law and a bilingual translator sat at the opposite side of the hall with a group of English speakers in an effort to explain her slides and accompanying visuals.

“It’s really about public safety”

Advocates for the legislation argue that the Green Light Law is a clear-cut case in favor for enhancing public safety on all sides.

Maloney explained that allowing undocumented immigrants to gain access to state-issued driver’s licenses would protect fellow drivers on the road and allow them to purchase vehicular insurance.

“It’s really about public safety and it’s about people learning the rules of the road, and people getting insurance and also being able to meet their basic needs,” Maloney told FingerLakes1.com.

A recent news headline that stoked controversy surrounding the Green Light Law prior to its implementation came from Cayuga County: vehicular manslaughter in Weedsport.

Heriberto R. Perez-Velasquez, 31, of Savannah drove his 2010 Chevy Cobalt into Mark A. Knapp, 59, of Weedsport who was operating a compact tractor, which caused a fatal accident and Knapp being pronounced dead at the scene on November 12, 2019.

A month earlier in October, Perez-Velasquez was freed after pending DWI charges were filed in Wayne County.

ICE later confirmed that Perez-Velasquez was in fact an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala that was previously deported but still returned to the United States.

The Guatemala national was charged with second-degree vehicular manslaughter, driving while intoxicated, leaving the scene of a personal injury accident and failure to use designated lane.

Following the wreck, Perez-Velasquez allegedly fled the scene but was later apprehended by Cayuga County Sheriff Brian Schenck’s office with the assistance of a private citizen a short distance away from the crash.

Since this sensational story broke across the Finger Lakes, concerning questions have circulated about the potential effectiveness and limitations of the Green Light Law once enacted in mid-December.

In response to this situation, Maloney claimed that the number of hit and runs have decreased while overall traffic safety rates increased in states where comparable legislation to the Green Light Law was passed and introduced.

Maloney also sees that those whom she has worked with to train ahead of the driver’s test through the Green Light Law seem sincerely inspired and excited to simply have an opportunity to learn.

“When people actually have to go and learn and they have the ability to go and take a test and learn the rules of the road, they’re excited to do that. They’re ready to learn the rules of the road,” Maloney explained.

During the event, Rural & Migrant Ministry volunteers were passing-out Spanish-written applications and some whom came carried driver’s manuals as they prepare and study ahead of their scheduled examination dates.

As per any policy pertaining to immigrants, Maloney was sure to dispel the common misconceptions that are associated with the Green Light Law.

“One is, you know, that folks are just going to get a license that they won’t have to do any of the requirements and that they’re somehow skipping a line and of course, that’s false. So, there is no skipping of the line. There’s people want to get in those same line and wait in the same DMV that that you and I do every day. So that’s one of the important things is that this is it’s not about giving anything out to anyone,” Maloney stated.

“People need to be free to drive and this is just a basic human right”

Gabriela Quintanilla, the interim New York Western coordinator at the Rural & Migrant Ministry has worked directly in the field with undocumented immigrants throughout the region on this issue.

Under the Green Light Law, the DMV has promised alongside Governor Cuomo to keep personal information out of the hands of federal agents, specifically the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE.

“Like we heard tonight, there’s of course level of fear, you know, people not knowing if this information is going to be given to ICE or not,” Quintanilla told FingerLakes1.com.

“I think there’s a lot of positivity in that community, people are excited to get their driver’s license, it is a huge need,” she continued.

From her perspective as the coordinator of the regional Rural & Migrant Ministry presence, the passage and implementation of the Green Light Law may impact how her organization operates in the future along the transportation front, all for the better in her eyes.

“It would be that we often give transportation to those who needed to come to our events or if they need to go to immigration court and I think that once people can drive, they will no longer need to rely on somebody else, you know, to go to the doctor or to go grocery shopping or just basic needs,” Quintanilla said.

As a volunteer organization with a handful of staff on-hand and interns, the volunteer-oriented mission is still a massive undertaking to host similar events in Lyons like this last Sunday.

With vans and vehicles on-site, volunteers and interns alike embark on long trips sometimes even several hours cumulatively to bring guests from across the Finger Lakes to their programming.

“Somebody can think I’m just driving and you’re just not just driving. You’re going out to this farm that’s like miles and miles away. You’re seeing how the workers live, you’re making a relationship with the workers, and it’s all about community building, you know, and bringing people together,” Quintanilla stated.

Consequently, Quintanilla has firmly backed the Green Light Law which she strongly believes that “people need to be free to drive and this is just a basic human right.”

“They’re picking other things that have nothing to do with licenses and try to attack us because their opposition is based on hate and being anti-immigrant”

“They’re picking other things that have nothing to do with licenses to try and attack us because their opposition is based on hate and being anti-immigrant”

Distortions between the Trusted Traveler program and Green Light Law dispute are clearly causing controversy, but Maloney emphasizes that this new legislative act bears no weight or influence upon any of the federal programs.

In New York state, the REAL ID Act created a three-tier license system: enhanced, READ ID compliant and standard.

As pertaining to the Green Light Law, undocumented immigrants are eligible to qualify for standard license, which are solely for driving purposes and personal identification and not for any additional federal purposes; this includes crossing the Canadian national border.

Following recent comments made about New York state by Trump during the State of the Union address, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sent a letter to Albany last Wednesday, which announced that enrollment and re-enrollment for the Trusted Traveler program has been suspended, causing a standstill for open applications as well as a closure of the Canadian border to New York residents who seek to renew their enrollment as a part of one the federally-approved programs.

Maloney believes that the motives were clear and purely incited as “political retaliation” against New York state and Governor Cuomo on behalf of the Trump administration.

“I mean the Trump administration has taken clear political retaliation against our state that has nothing to do with the actual licenses that we have in New York state. The Trusted Traveler program that I think that you’re referring to with Nexus and with a Global Entry programs has nothing to do with our state licensing system,” Maloney stated.

The Trusted Traveler program is a separate application process altogether that deals with the FBI and other federal entities.

“If you apply for those programs, you have to go in person to a federal agent. The FBI looks in your background and limiting Customs and Border Protections’ direct access to the New York state database does not limit the FBI and what they’re looking. There is no correlation between those programs and the safety of our state and it’s just clear political retaliation,” Maloney continued.

Quintanilla added that New York has not acted “revolutionary” by passing the Green Light Law last spring when 13 other states have enacted similar legislative acts.

“People need to be free to drive and this is just a basic human right, and this is not revolutionary. There’s been other 13 states that have done this so that’s that and you know, immigrants are here to stay. So, we need to work with them. We need to live with them. There are neighbors that our kids go to, you know, there’s their schools and we go to the same doctor and we live here so we need to love our neighbor,” Quintanilla said.

Even though several other states have enacted similar laws, New York state has still been treated as an anomaly by the Trump administration throughout this ongoing politically partisan and divisive conflict.

In response to Wednesday’s unexpected announcement by the Department of Homeland Security, New York State Attorney General Letitia James has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration regarding the suspension that has since been placed on New Yorkers from enrolling and re-enrolling into the Trusted Traveler program.

The lawsuit that specifically targets the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection as well as their respective acting leaders for both agencies argues that the policy change was an arbitrary decision which poses a threat to the public safety of New Yorkers as well as the economy, on top of violating the state’s sovereign rights to self-govern.

In a statement from yesterday, Governor Cuomo said, “We will not compromise our values nor back down when the federal government continues to unfairly and illegally target New York. There are more than a dozen states, including red states, with similar laws, but President Trump and his enablers are once again taking their aim at New York’s economy in a way that not only inconveniences travelers, but also creates very real security issues. Make no mistake, we are fighting back and will be using every tool available to us to do so.”

“Well, they’re picking other things that have nothing to do with licenses to try and attack us because their opposition is based on hate and being anti-immigrant. I’m just not based on the reality that we live every day,” Maloney shared.

A resurgence of resistance against federal agencies including ICE has arisen in the form of local organizations like the FLX Rapid Response Network that was present at Sunday’s informational session in cooperation with the Rural & Migrant Ministry.

Representatives Hannah Dickinson, an active member of the Geneva Women’s Assembly and Kathleen Carney attended the event, bringing business-sized cards with them that provide the contact information for a Spanish-speaking operator who can offer some assistance to the caller depending on the certain situation, whether someone was detained or ICE has been spotted within the area.

The FLX Rapid Response Network Spanish-speaking operator call cards. Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio, FL1 News. 

But beyond the federal level, anti-immigrant stances have reemerged within the state legislative body by state Senator Pam Helming [R-NY] when she introduced Senate Bill 163 in early January, which has been touted as the “New York State English Language Empowerment Act.”

This controversial piece of legislation seeks to designate English as New York’s official language.

Sen. Helming has argued that the bill aims for the English language to “celebrate its unifying impact and encourage its adoption, as it helps bring us together as a state and nation.”

While the content of the bill seems newly rejuvenated in 2020, this proposition has made its way to Albany on multiple occasions.

Dating as far back as the 2009-2010 legislative cycle versions of S. 163 have circulated within committees even by her predecessor former senate Sen. Michael Nozzolio, a fellow Republican in his own right.

Preceding this act, variations of the bill were introduced on seven separate occasions between the state Senate and Assembly.

This time, however, the bill gained support from ProEnglish, which has been characterized as an anti-immigrant group by the Anti-Defamation League and a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The late John Tanton, the founder of ProEnglish was also a white nationalist that was connected to various anti-immigrant organizations.

Read the drafted bill in its entirety below:

S 130. LEGISLATIVE FINDINGS AND INTENT. THE LEGISLATURE HEREBY FINDS THAT, THE STATE IS COMPRISED OF INDIVIDUALS FROM MANY ETHNIC, CULTURAL,AND LINGUISTIC BACKGROUNDS, AND CONTINUES TO BENEFIT FROM THIS RICH DIVERSITY. THROUGHOUT THE HISTORY OF NEW YORK AND THE UNITED STATES, THE COMMON THREAD BINDING INDIVIDUALS OF DIFFERING BACKGROUNDS HAS BEEN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. COMMAND OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IS NECESSARY TO PARTICIPATE IN AND TAKE FULL ADVANTAGE OF THE OPPORTUNITIES AFFORDED BY AMERICAN LIFE. ABSENT A RUDIMENTARY COMMAND OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, CITIZENS OF THIS STATE ARE NOT ABLE TO MAKE THEIR VOICES HEARD IN THE LEGISLATIVE PROCESS, EFFECTIVELY EXERCISE THEIR RIGHT TO VOTE, OR FULLY UNDERSTAND THE RIGHTS AFFORDED THEM BY THE UNITED STATES AND NEW YORK CONSTITUTIONS. SUCH CITIZENS ALSO HAVE A MORE DIFFICULT TIME FINDING GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT, AFFORDABLE HOUSING, HEALTH INSURANCE, AND OTHERWISE AVAILING THEMSELVES OF THE FULL BENEFITS OF AMERICAN LIFE FOR THEMSELVES AND THEIR FAMILIES.

Although this type of legislation has failed in the past from leaving the Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee, this proposition can impact the Green Light Law with those who participate in the program through the Department of Motor Vehicles.

While the online writing test is currently available in English and Spanish, the traffic signs are still written in English as they would appear on the road.

As for the practical driving exam, this portion is solely conducted in the English language, which may serve as a barrier for some driving candidates.

“So, when you go and drive with someone that’s only in English, and there’s no interpretation,” Maloney said.

In spite of informal language barriers and the unlikely probability of Sen. Helming’s English official language legislation passing, Maloney argues that the undocumented immigrant population is willing and ready to learn English, but this can only be accomplished through enhanced access for transportation.

“There’s a desire to be able to participate in that community and to be more integrated in the community and a driver’s license is one of those vehicles to be able to go to English classes. It’s actually one of the things we hear about why people want to license, I have a license, I can go to the library and go where the English tutors are,” she stated.

“I think anyone who lives in upstate New York is probably driving at least 30 minutes a day, if not more. Anyway, I care about if I get my accident is that other person has insurance. What I can care about is that they know when there’s a stop sign that they have to stop and that’s regardless of whatever language they speak,” Maloney said.

“The part about what language they speak is secondary,” she concluded.

Meghan Maloney de Zaldivar, the senior associate for regional outreach at the New York Immigrant Coalition, speaks to guests in Spanish about the Green Light Law. Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio, FL1 News. 

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