Last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration announced it would support granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Alphonso David, Cuomo’s counsel, said on a panel the governor would sign a bill if it makes it out of the state legislature.
Immigrant advocates rejoiced. “GREAT NEWS!” the influential immigrant rights group, Make the Road NY, tweeted in November. Activists had been hopeful that the State Senate, now in Democratic hands for the first time in a decade, would take up the push with the governor’s full support. This week, Eric Gonzalez, the Brooklyn district attorney, said he will back giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants as well.
While Cuomo remains publicly supportive of the legislation to provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, he is privately working against the bill, according to three sources with knowledge of the communications who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution from the governor's office. Over the past month, Cuomo has called the six Democratic state senators who represent areas of Nassau and Suffolk County—all six defeated Republicans in competitive elections to take their seats—to tell them that they should not support the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, the bill that would allow the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue licenses to non-citizens and could affect as many as 265,000 people statewide, according to advocates.
A state Democratic source familiar with the phone calls to the senators told Gothamist that Cuomo’s message was clear: supporting such legislation would do damage to them politically. While Cuomo did not directly say he wouldn't sign the legislation if it came to his desk, he told the moderate Democrats that they should not back the bill granting driver’s licenses for the undocumented, implying he was not eager to see the legislation make it out of the legislature.
A high-ranking source in state immigration advocacy work, as well as a Democratic staffer, confirmed the nature of these phone calls. Cuomo and the six senators—John Brooks, Todd Kaminsky, Anna Kaplan, Kevin Thomas, James Gaughran and Monica Martinez—did not return multiple requests for comment.
“I wonder, with the whole Amazon deal falling apart and the progressives taking the credit for that victory, if this is his way of saying, ‘Well, you progressives got me here, this is another critical issue for you. You’re not going to get me on this one,’” said Eli Valentin, a Democratic strategist and political analyst on Univision NY.
State law must be changed to allow the DMV to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Though Cuomo’s nominee to lead the DMV, Mark Schroeder, said he would support issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants, the issue has long been a fraught one in state politics. Former Governor Eliot Spitzer attempted to change the state law over a decade ago but met resistance from the Republican-controlled State Senate and county clerks of both parties, including Kathy Hochul, who is now Cuomo’s lieutenant governor. Hillary Clinton, then a New York senator, did not support Spitzer’s proposal either, though she later backed the policy when she ran for president in 2016.
Twelve states plus the District of Columbia already allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Unlike the DREAM Act, which grants tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants and is something Cuomo championed, the governor’s public backing of the controversial change to DMV rules has been much more muted. In his first two terms, he never prioritized the legislation or spoke about it with any frequency.
None of the six Long Island Democrats have co-sponsored the legislation to change the state driver’s license law. The bill’s prime co-sponsor is Democrat Luis Sepulveda of the Bronx. There are 18 co-sponsors in total. The only non-New York City members to sign onto the bill are Shelley Mayer of Westchester, Rachel May of Syracuse, and Pete Harckham, a Hudson Valley lawmaker.
Sepulveda told Gothamist he was not aware of Cuomo lobbying against his legislation. While he would not guarantee that it would pass this session, he said he was glad support had grown with Democrats taking control of the Senate.
“I think we’re in a good environment,” Sepulveda said, adding that the full Democratic conference hasn’t sat down yet to hash out the details of the bill. “The governor understands, when you look at this from an economic standpoint, it’s an excellent bill … it’s going to spur the economy in isolated areas where undocumented immigrants live.”
Cuomo has at times resisted the prospects of a united Senate Democratic conference, tacitly blessing a now defunct group of renegade Democrats, the Independent Democratic Conference, who once helped keep Republicans in the majority. Many of the newly elected Democrats, particularly in New York City, are outwardly progressive and willing to publicly clash with Cuomo. The same is not true for the six Long Island Democrats, who Cuomo vigorously campaigned for and has sought, at times, to pit against the city lawmakers.
Cuomo’s quiet opposition to driver’s licenses for the undocumented comes as his poll numbers slide and immigration, especially on Long Island, remains a hot button issue. Traditionally a stronghold for whiter, more conservative voters, Long Island is still home to Republicans like Lee Zeldin and Peter King, members of Congress who strongly support President Donald Trump’s campaign against the threat of unchecked immigration and the local presence of MS-13, an international criminal gang.
Republicans hoping to reclaim State Senate seats in 2020 are already hunting for lines of attack. After the collapse of the Amazon deal, Senate Republicans paid for digital ads criticizing Democrats on Long Island for helping to kill Cuomo’s push to bring a second Amazon headquarters to Queens, despite the fact that none of those Democrats were opposed. Cuomo publicly criticized the dean of the Long Island Democratic delegation, Kaminsky, for not fighting harder to save the Amazon deal. (Cuomo was hoping the six senators could more publicly oppose their New York City colleagues, who were far more hostile to Amazon.)
Immigration, Republicans hope, can be another key wedge issue, especially with Trump on the ballot in November 2020 and many of his most fervent backers rushing to the polls. John Flanagan, the Republican minority leader and an opponent of issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, has said “the rights and benefits that are paid for by our taxpayers must be reserved for those who live here legally.”
“There are definitely anti-immigrant folks out there. Whether those are actually voters available to Democrats, that is an open question,” said Doug Forand, a Democratic consultant who has worked on numerous Long Island races.
Forand said Cuomo was less eager to embrace the fight for driver’s license for undocumented immigrants because there is a “ready-made” opposition from various right-leaning county clerks and the political payoff may not be as great as when he legalized same-sex marriage or supported the DREAM Act.
“He feels it’s a fight he won’t necessarily win and even if he does, he doesn’t get much benefit,” Forand said. “You don’t have the raw public support like with marriage equality, where you were going into that fight and winning every day of the week.”
[UPDATE 1:27 p.m.] After this story was published, Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens sent us this statement, calling the idea that the governor would make these phone calls "black helicopter theories."
Governor Cuomo has supported providing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants since 2007. He is a tireless champion for immigrant communities hurt by the federal government’s inhumane policies, and issued an executive order to prohibit ICE arrests in all executive agencies and state buildings without a warrant, which he is now proposing to codify into law. We will continue to work with the legislature on these issues. Your unnamed source couldn’t be more wrong so we’ll leave the black helicopter theories to others.
Ross Barkan is a political journalist who recently tried his hand at politics: last year he lost the Democratic primary for State Senate in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Read more about his run here.