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Federal Court Affirms New York's Green Light Law Allowing Undocumented Immigrants To Seek Driver's Licenses

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A protester holds a sign as members of the state Assembly speak in favor of legislation of the Green Light Bill, granting undocumented immigrant driver's licenses during a rally at the state Capitol in Albany in 2019. Hans Pennink/AP/Shutterstock

A federal court has upheld New York’s law allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses against a lawsuit brought by an upstate county clerk who claimed the law would make him personally liable for violating U.S. immigration policy.

In a ruling issued Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns’s 2019 lawsuit seeking to block the state’s Green Light law.

Kearns had sued Governor Andrew Cuomo, state Attorney General Letitia James, and New York’s Department of Motor Vehicle Commissioner Mark Schroeder on grounds that he could be prosecuted under federal immigration law for performing certain duties under the Green Light law, which shields the personal data of applicants from federal law enforcement.

Once the Green Light law took effect last December, Kearns posted “If you see something, say something” signs in the Erie County auto bureaus with an ICE tipline phone number, according to WGRZ. He had his staff take photocopies of foreign paperwork even though that’s against state policy, the Buffalo News reported: “The state has informed county clerks they are not allowed to save any of the foreign identification proofs presented to them, but Kearns's staff is making photocopies of all foreign proofs. Kearns cited a passage in the law that says documents may be retained ‘for a limited period necessary to ensure the validity and authenticity of such documents.’”

Kearns also refused to confirm to the Buffalo News that any applicant could ever successfully receive a license and “he said he had no comment when asked if he would report any applications he received to federal agents.”

District Judge Elizabeth Wolford had granted the Attorney Generals motion to dismiss Kearns’s lawsuit last November, finding that “Kearns suffered no concrete, particularized injury because he did not face a credible threat of prosecution under federal law if he complied with the provisions of the state statute that he challenged.”

Wolford’s ruling pointed out that as a county clerk, Kearns’s role in issuing driver's licenses is “purely ministerial” and only a number of “implausible scenarios” -- such as the federal government requesting applicant records from Kearns personally instead of from the state DMV office -- would even lead him to be liable under federal law.

Judge Barrington Parker issued the appellate ruling Monday after Kearns appealed.

“The Green Light law is legal and enforceable, and today’s decision marks the third federal court to dismiss challenges brought seeking to enjoin the law,” James said in a statement Monday. "This law provides protections to all New Yorkers by making our roads safer, growing our economy, and allowing immigrants to come out of the shadows to sign up as legal drivers in our state. As the state’s attorney and chief law enforcement officer, I am proud to have vigorously defended this law and will continue to do so against all who oppose it.”

The law has also been challenged by President Donald Trump’s administration, which attempted to punish New York for its Green Light law and general sanctuary status for undocumented immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security announced in February that New York residents could no longer enroll in the trusted traveler programs which expedites security clearance at borders and airports for approved participants. In July, DHS officials admitted making “inaccurate” and “misleading” statements when enacting the ban on New Yorkers and re-instated New York to trusted traveler programs, and in October a federal judge also ruled the DHS acted unlawfully.

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