ALBANY — The leading pro-immigration group in New York is set to launch a million-dollar campaign pushing the state to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
The New York Immigration Coalition will head the effort and use its political arm to fund a Super PAC targeting state elected officials, said Steven Choi, the group’s executive director.
With President Trump “demonizing” undocumented immigrants and his administration cracking down on those in the country illegally, the New York Immigration Coalition said Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature have to follow through on their promises to fight back.
“We mean business this year,” Choi said. “Our goal is to target every single legislator in New York State. We think it makes a ton of sense.”
In what could be its biggest campaign, the New York Immigration Coalition, the state’s largest immigration advocacy group, plans to spend at least $1 million on TV, radio and targeted social and digital media ads as well as billboards.
The campaign, which will begin within days, will also involve stepped up lobbying efforts, media engagement, and grassroots efforts in Albany and in lawmakers’ districts.
The NYIC has hired consulting group Metropolitan Public Strategies to help lead the effort.
Twelve states, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and Utah, already provide driver’s licenses to those who don’t have Social Security numbers.
Eliot Spitzer as New York governor in 2007 issued an executive order to make undocumented immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses.
But he ultimately pulled the plug over widespread criticism and threats of lawsuits, including from many county clerks who run their local department of motor vehicles offices for the state and said they would refuse to follow the policy.
The issue also tripped up Hillary Clinton in a 2007 presidential debate when she was asked about it.
But the idea is gaining renewed support in New York as the Trump administration has cracked down heavily on undocumented immigrants.
“We think it’s time to finally exorcise the ghost of Eliot Sptizer and succeed where he failed,” Choi said. “If Gov. Cuomo is looking to protect immigrants from Donald Trump and his administration, as he says, this is the No. 1 policy we can adopt to do that.”
Advocates estimate that allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses would affect about 265,000 people, which Choi said could help drive down auto insurance costs for all New Yorkers while making the streets safer by cutting down on unlicensed drivers who haven’t had to pass a driving test.
With Democrats now controlling both houses of the Legislature for the first time in a decade, supporters hope the issue has its best shot yet of passing, though some lawmakers from the suburbs and particularly upstate may be reticent.
Cuomo and the Legislature have prioritized creating a state DREAM Act that would allow college students whose parents are undocumented immigrants access to state tuition assistance programs. While advocates support that measure, they believe the state needs to go further by dealing with the driver’s license issue.
Spokesmen for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and new Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did not rule out taking up the measure this legislative session but didn’t commit to it either.
“It’s something we’re looking into,” said Stewart-Cousins spokesman Mike Murphy.
Heastie spokesman Michael Whyland said the speaker will discuss the issue with his members, though he added that Heastie personally approves of the idea.
“The speaker has said in the past that he supports ways to bring people out of the shadows,” Whyland said.
Cuomo, who held his inauguration on New Year’s Day on Ellis Island while vowing to protect immigrants in New York from Trump policies, has said he supports giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
But he has dismissed the idea of doing it through executive order, saying many county clerks won’t comply. He said the matter should be addressed through legislation, which he has promised he would sign.
State Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long ripped the idea.
“Illegal immigrants have already broken the law, so why would you give lawbreakers driver’s licenses?” Long said.
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